What Makes an Archive Number One?

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Beijing for almost three months now. I’m sure it’s even harder if you read this blog and can’t recall me saying anything about what I’ve actually been doing here. Time to fix that.


My main research site here is the First Historical Archives (FHA), or, more colloquially, the “Number One.” This institution hold materials from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Yes, there is a Second Historical Archives; it’s located in Nanjing and holds national-level records from the Republican Period (1912-1949). For someone studying Qing history, going to the FHA is a kind of rite of passage. Navigating the three separate check-ins, actually being allowed to look at a historical document of any kind, and knowing that scholars you admire came through here as graduate students is pretty cool.

The FHA itself is pretty neat as well. For one thing, it’s located inside the Forbidden City (inside a special gate on the west side). Also, there are always people doing research there, making it a great place to meet fellow scholars. And, within minutes of sitting down, you get instant access to thousands upon thousands of historical documents.

Things work a bit differently than they used to, which is both good and bad. Now the primary media for consulting archival documents are computer terminals connected to the FHA’s intranet, although microfilm machines are still in use an there are published materials kept on the reading room shelves. Gone is the priceless joy of holding in your hands a frayed piece of paper whose place in history is uniquely meaningful to you. The unavailability of documents during the digitization process has also been an obstacle. Fortunately, a large number of materials are now digitized and available (on-site only, of course), but digitization is ongoing, meaning that some documents are out of commission for the foreseeable future.

But there are advantages. Being able to quickly move from one document to the next without needing to page additional files speeds up the research process considerably and makes it easier to poke around in different corners of the holdings. Now, instead of paper copies, researchers can obtain a limited number of digital copies of materials. The catalog allows you to search document titles (timing) for keywords, making it far easier to find otherwise disparate records that relate to a common theme.

You might even think that researching Qing history is as easy as doing a Google search. You’d be wrong, but you still might think that. It turns out that a search box isn’t, on its own, the solution to every research problem. Record titles are, of course, abbreviated and may contain terms that lead to (from the researcher’s perspective) extraneous query results or omit terms that mean they’re left out of search results. For example, the other day I was reading a document about donations to famine relief that I found because the title contained the name of a person I was interested in. That document alluded to a more complete list of donations in a separate document that hadn’t turned up in my keyword search. I dug that one up by doing an advanced search for the author and date of the first document.

And, of course, human error and technical limitations have their say. One of the people I am interested in unfortunately had a (single-character) given name that is an uncommon Chinese character. So uncommon, in fact, that it appears in the catalog simply as a question mark. The only way to discover this is to find documents listing him as the author by some other means and to note that while searching for an author named 杜䎗 will return no results and searching for the surname 杜 will, of course, return far too many, a query for 杜?will give you exactly what you want.

Some of the challenges researchers face at the FHA don’t have anything to do with new technology or archival organization. Working with a large number of individual documents makes it inherently necessary to not only keep track of the documents you’ve found and read (or haven’t) but also the searches that have turned up these documents. As I suggested above, finding what you want requires querying the catalog from different angles. On the other hand, you don’t want to waste your time covering exactly the some ground twice.(As you might expect from my post on “workflow,” I use a combination of an Excel spreadsheet and Google docs plus some other tools to manage this.)

Growing up my dad taught me that it’s always fastest to do something right the first time. Hypothetically, then, the best archive would facilitate researchers getting their research right the first time and thus as quickly as possible. To be sure, there’s wisdom in that (both for life and research). But research – both in history and other fields – is necessarily an iterative process. That means that if it doesn’t take several tries, then you’re missing something or aiming for the wrong thing.

Admittedly, research isn’t endlessly iterative. I need to leave Beijing at some point, and getting this trip to the archives “right” will make writing my dissertation a lot more straightforward. After all, I can’t just jet back here for a couple days here and there. Which isn’t to say that I need everything I touch in the archives to turn to gold. Some nuggets would be nice, but I don’t think I can imagine an archive (at least one organized by anyone but myself) that would give me exactly what I want on the first go.

For an archive as large as the FHA, then, what it means to be “good” can be a couple different things. To be sure, a system that quickly shows you what you want the most is an advantage. But for someone doing in-depth dissertation research, it might be even more important to facilitate poking around and experimenting with different ways to find documents. Although there is still room for improvement (don’t get me started on the chairs), the FHA is doing a pretty good job on both counts.


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