A Lesson in Writing Acknowledgements

Composing the “Acknowledgements” is surely one of the more fun parts of a book project.   You’re exhausted but relieved, maybe exhilarated that it’s done and naturally brimming with gratitude to all those who have helped you.  After listing the friends who gave you those crucial tips or kept your spirits up in times of despair, you turn to the unsung heroes in the historical profession, the archivists and curators who slave away anonymously in dusty repositories to preserve, catalogue, and detail the sources historians use.   I’ve worked in dozens of archives in several countries, some well organized and equipped with the latest technology (the great state archives of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany come to mind), others little more than a room with a table and only a few handwritten notes as guides to sources (countless monasteries in Western Europe).  In all of them I have met wonderful, dedicated people whom I admire and remember fondly (thanks, Sister Ann Christi, for your help at the Carmel of Vilvoorde last March, you were great, thanks!).

Except, well, how shall I put it, there are exceptions.  I never quite know what to do with those in the Acknowledgements.  Leave them out?  Bury them under praise so faint or unlikely that everybody will see right through it?  It’s delicate because who knows, you may need their assistance again some day.

I just came across Acknowledgements that take care of the problem with exemplary aplomb.

The Armoire de Fer, c. 1790, at the Archives nationales de France (photo: ANdF)

The Armoire de Fer, c. 1790, at the Archives nationales de France (photo: ANdF)

Here’s the paragraph in question cited in full from Geert Van Goethem, The Amsterdam International: The World of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), 1913-1945 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), p. 10.  Observe the firm twist of the rapier at the end:

During my more than five years of research, I visited about thirty archive centres and became acquainted with as many information retrieval systems.  I adapted to thirty different sets of internal regulations, dutifully filled in registers, applied in writing to custodians for permission to consult documents, addressed governments with requests to lift embargoes, always carried passport photos so I could instantly produce some whenever required for a membership card or pass, and paid all manner of admission fees and charges.  In my experience, keeping strictly to the rules usually earns one smooth and courteous assistance.  But there are exceptions.  In one particular instance, I had passed through all the ordeals and removed all obstacles – or so I thought.  I had notified my arrival in writing from Belgium, confirmed by telephone, had had my photograph taken for a badge and even paid an admission fee for FRF 100, only to find out that I could and would not get to see the one file that had been the sole object of all my efforts.  Therefore, my thanks to the Archives nationales de France need not be taken too literally.

I may add that the ANdF have a certain reputation in the field.  Thanks, Geert, for showing how it’s done.

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Hemingway Letters Update

Back in April 2010, I noted that in the past half century Hemingway biographies have largely ignored the papers he left behind at Finca Vigía, his Cuban home, in 1961, and I reported that in 2009 copies of most of these materials had finally become available at the Kennedy Library in Boston, which houses the extensive Ernest Hemingway Collection.

Consolidation of the papers and growing international cooperation among Hemingway scholars have now resulted in a massive project, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, to publish his approximately 6,000 letters, of which about 80% have not yet appeared in print.  The first volume, covering the years 1907–1922, has already been published; a dozen or more volumes are planned.

The Introduction to the edition by Sandra Spanier, the general editor (Vol. 1, pp. xi-xxxiii), has more on the vagaries of the Hemingway archives.  An interview with Spanier is here.

Furtum Sacrum

The Codex Calixtinus, the twelfth-century manuscript containing the oldest version of the so-called “Pilgrim’s Guide to St James,” has “disappeared” from a safe in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.   Staff discovered its absence late on Tuesday but it is not clear when exactly the manuscript was stolen, if theft there is.  There were no signs of forced entry, and only two people, in addition to the dean of the cathedral, have access to the manuscript.  El País, which offers the most extensive coverage of the mystery that I have seen, notes that its value is “incalculable.”  Like many medieval manuscripts around the world, the Codex Calixtinus is not insured.

The Past in Color

The Library of Congress has done terrific work putting on line parts of its vast photograph collection.  For a sample of those taken by the scientist and documentary photographer
Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) in the old Russian Empire between ca. 1905 and 1915, in astonishing color, go here (the comments are great, too!); the complete set is at the Library of Congress site, here.

Hemingway, Castro, and Oblivion

Historians are not only “students of history”.  We also make history.  Without us, the story of the past is lost as soon as its living memory fades.  In the High Middle Ages, when writing about secular affairs was still so unusual that to do so needed justification, historians and scribes often argued that their work served to prevent the “forgetfulness of those alive today, and the ignorance of those who live in the future” (I am translating from an early thirteenth-century Latin charter typical of the age).  Historians stand between memory and oblivion.

I was reminded of that role while reading Valerie Hemingway’s Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways (New York: Balantine Books, 2004).  First, a disclosure: I don’t find Hemingway’s work very interesting and appear incapable Continue reading