Friday, November 25, 2005

The Archival Life


One of the main places in which I spend time is the Památník národního písemnictvi, a literary archive with holdings well beyond the purely literary. Now that I have spent quite a bit of time there, and gotten on pleasant terms with the archivists, I find it a very congenial spot, although one in which I feel I must devote every minute to my work.

Like many institutes and archives, the PNP is not easy to find from the street. It is tucked away in Strahov, a courtyard area formerly belonging to the Church and now somewhat returned to it (it is actually possible to see men in cassocks, although tourists are a more typical sight). Strahov is the home of a famous library, which all visitors to Prague evidently want to see, and this complicates the researcher’s search for the PNP, as if you mistakenly tell the beleaguered cashier that you are looking for the library (as the PNP does include a library too), she will start irritably gesturing toward the main courtyard. After all, she does have a large sign posted that she does not sell tickets to the library. (I’m not sure exactly what she does sell, but it must be something or other related to the archive. Perhaps she sells guides to the different collections, or copies of the archive’s journal.) Once you realize the error of your ways and tell her you are looking for the archive, she becomes friendly and bustles you over to the correct door.

Once you go up the stairs, of course, you still have to figure out where to go next.
I underwent this interesting procedure in May of 2004, when I had a Czechoslovak Nationality Room scholarship to spend part of the summer doing research. At that time you could just walk into the complex of rooms that constitute the reading area, which could prompt a degree of confusion since once there you have to go through two rooms in order to get to the room where the archivists actually sign you up to do research. They have now instituted a buzzer system, to keep out lost tourists, I suppose. Fortunately it isn’t one that requires explaining why you are there; you ring the bell and they buzz you in. (It still helps to know where you are going.) If you haven’t worked there before, or haven’t worked there in a long time, it’s necessary to fill out paperwork. There are forms telling you all the rules, which you sign and then never see again (so much for knowing what the rules actually are). ID is necessary, and a student card or letter of introduction is useful. But overall, it is a friendly place and the archivists are not trying to keep people out. I suppose they need to keep statistics on their users, and all that sort of thing.

Ideally, the researcher has already found the archive’s web site and come up with some people whose papers might be of interest. The next step is to go through and write out request slips for the desired materials, like “Nezval’s diaries, 1925-1938” or “Teige’s correspondence with Černík.” The request slips have their own strange format, so the best plan is always to verify that they are properly filled out. Once the archivist is satisfied about that, she tells you whether the desired items can be obtained the same day or in a week or so. Another researcher told me that he had actually gone to work at the archive’s other location, but that it is not heated in the winter. I decided that in that case I could continue with last year’s strategy of having things brought to Prague, where the reading room is cozy and has quite a few places to plug in laptops.

As you can see from the photos, the environs are quite picturesque. It is no longer quite as autumnal looking, however. Most of the leaves have now fallen and today it snowed.

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