This is the second part of the story of Aileen Lichtenstein’s fantastic research trip to Berlin. In case you missed it, here’s her bio!
Aileen Lichtenstein is starting her third year of her PhD in History at the University of Glasgow. Her research examines the transatlantic connections of German anarchism in Berlin, London and New York between 1880 and 1914. She is especially interested in how people and ideas circulated between those three cities, how radicals have built communities in exile and the newspapers they printed.
Apart from the at times appalling handwriting and spelling, the bigger issue for progress was that the Landesarchiv did not allow photography of any kind and photocopying would have to be done by a staff member at a certain expense. So far, I had gotten around the problem of lacking digitisation by taking photos with my mobile in order to keep working on material at home. This has been especially helpful with the newspapers that I have consulted, as I can go back to them and filter for different information as my research questions develop. When the archivist informed me that I would have to change my method of working, I was a little taken aback. Here I was trying to read heaps of indecipherable handwriting with a very limited time frame and it felt like forever before I could close one file and move on to the next. I quickly decided to abandon the strategy of handwriting my own notes once I realised just how closely under time pressure, they started to resemble those the Prussian Political Police had left behind. Anyone who has ever marked an exam script or remembers their own frantic writing will know what I’m talking about.
In the end, while this was highly frustrating, I also learned a valuable lesson about engaging more fully and on the spot with my primary sources. Not being allowed to collect and essentially hoard thousands of files on hard drives I came home every evening exhausted but with a wealth of new information that I had already sorted and commented on for the chapters to come. Rather than leaving with large amounts of digital data I had already completed an important part of the legwork to use those sources in my future writing. One of my office mates reminded me the other day that we become far too reliant on digital material. Knowing it is always there in the background somewhere, waiting for us to consult it, does not always mean that we will actually take the time to do so. But working with something only available to you for a short period of time means I, at least, have engaged much more fully than I would photographing a document and moving on to the next.
Obviously digitised material is great, especially when working on sources that are located far from your place of work, where additional needs are supported by digital access, and/or where travelling is made difficult due to health, other commitments and constrained budgets. I am often very thankful for institutions like the IISH in Amsterdam that has digitised so many of their files to be consulted by researchers around the world. Yet, having had the experience of not being allowed to use photos, but having to analyse sources on the spot and under time pressure, has helped me to come away with a whole new sense of my topic and material. None of this, however, would have been possible without Student Development Funding from SGSAH allowing me to travel and spend time in Berlin. I am very thankful for the opportunity they have given me. I am also much faster now in deciphering people’s handwriting which I hope will help with the exam scripts waiting for me in December.
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