Summer in the archives: an obsolete obsession?

UK National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey Photo credit: Petra Dolata

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These days a 2018 comic by Jorge Cham[1] is making the rounds again. Under the heading “Summer” he plays with the assumption that academics love the summer because of the holidays and being off work when in fact they get all excited about finally being able to write, i.e. work. Of course, for a lot of us historians that work means finally hitting the archives. So, the image of the woman in front of her desk should be substituted by her sitting in an archive, possibly wearing even more warm clothes because a lot of archives are not only windowless but also notoriously cold and drafty. Actually, going by my own experience it probably should show a woman standing in front of a desk in the archives holding her smart phone in her right hand and shooting one image after the other as she turns documents in a folder at a record pace.

Technology certainly has allowed us to make more out of our archival visits than ever before. In a much shorter time, we can “go” through a lot more material making archival trips shorter and thus cheaper. And in times of scarce funding any shortening of research trips is welcome. I remember the relief when I found out that the German national archive, the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, finally embarked on a pilot project allowing users to take photos with their own cameras or smart phones. Before that, you were not even allowed to use photocopiers but had to fill out lengthy forms to order copies from a commercial vendor at high prices and with long waiting times. The flipside of this new practice is, of course, that “going” through material no longer automatically means reading it all in situ. It often takes months before we look at those documents again, this time on screens, and finally reading all of them thoroughly. Does this mean that archival research has become a soulless, mechanical part of our research which we could leave to well-instructed research assistants?

I personally do not think so. In fact, it allows researchers like myself to pursue transnational investigations as we are able to get through many more holdings than before. As part of my multi-archival and multilingual research project on the 1970s energy crises, which is funded through a SSHRC Insight Grant (2017-2023), I examine governmental and corporate sources from West Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States. I had chosen these five countries because I wanted to show how energy issues in the 1970s led to an increase in inter- and transnational interconnections, a development that political scientists Robert Keohane and Jospeh Nye encapsulated at the time in their concept of interdependence.[2] If energy issues were indeed the driving force behind interdependence in the 1970s then it would be impossible to trace these entanglements by looking at one country only. Instead, I decided to examine neighbours who share (informally) integrated energy markets such as Canada and the U.S. or the Netherlands and West Germany as well as allies across the Atlantic Ocean, who despite their different positions as energy producers or consumers looked for solutions to global energy challenges within multinational institutions (OECD/IEA, NATO, UN).

Being able to take photos of documents which I can then analyze back home, allows me to pursue a project that before was only manageable through research teams. Of course, collaborative work is not a bad thing and one may question why this project should be pursued by a single investigator. I would argue that while team members are able to bring together their respective country expertise and create important comparativenarratives, it is easier for one person to find the entanglements as they appear at unexpected moments in the documents and thus write a truly transnationalhistory. 

While I may not have the time to read through all the documents in the archive itself, my experience there is anything but mechanical and certainly not soulless. To the contrary, it is very rewarding, not least because of finding those entanglements. Sometimes, they emerge in handwritten comments on the margins or even in doodles telling more than a thousand words. For example, British diplomats in the Foreign Office were not particularly impressed with West German oil diplomacy in the mid-1970s. They saw themselves as much more knowledgeable about international oil matters because of their historical ties to the Middle East and their close relationships with BP and Shell, whose representatives they met in what they called “oil tea parties” since the mid-1960s. Not surprisingly, some proposals by West German diplomats were ridiculed.

German proposal to address financial ramifications of high oil prices and reactions by British civil servants in the FCO Energy Department (not to be confused with the UK Department of Energy). The National Archives UK, FCO 96/286

On the other hand, not everything looked so professional on the British side either. Eight months after the Department of Energy was created in January 1974, outdated stationery was used in official communications with the West German side and the old departmental title was simply crossed out. While I hesitate to read too much into this, it does reflect the ad hoc responses that the 1973 energy crises created.

Letter from E.J. Lindley, UK Department of Energy to his counterpart in the West German Ministry of Economics (today’s German Ministry of Economics and Energy only took on the official reference to energy in its name in 2013). Bundesarchiv Zwischenarchiv B102/281153 

As these entertaining archival finds show, even the skimming and scanning of material provides a good sense of perceptions and misperceptions as well as underlying sympathies and enmities which are extremely important in understanding how the Western world addressed mutual challenges posed by an increasingly interconnected and energy-intensive world. However, there remains the danger that the historian will rest on her laurels and forget about that other part of her archival research which has been outsourced and now happens at home, in front of a computer. And she should not wait until the next summer to do so! 


[1]Jorge Cham, “Summer,” 5 May 2018. http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=2013
[2]Robert O. Keohane & Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Power and interdependence,” Survival 15, 4 (1973), 158-165, DOI: 10.1080/00396337308441409.
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Petra Dolata is an energy historian at the University of Calgary and co-convenor of the Energy In Society working group at the Calgary Institute for the Humanities.

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