We are grateful to one of our recent MA Contemporary History students here at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History for writing this reflection on an archival visit undertaken in the context of dissertation research.
This is a short blog about an opportunity I had this summer (2017) to undertake three days of archival research in Switzerland, for my dissertation project in the MA in Contemporary History at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. I travelled there to consult the records of the Monnet Action Committee, which are located in the Jean Monnet Foundation in Lausanne, and was fortunate enough to receive partial assistance towards the costs from a research travel grant from the Centre.
My MA dissertation looked into the wider context of European integration as it developed in the mid 1950s, through the specific case study of the Monnet Action Committee. This is a relatively little-known organisation today that was active at that time in promoting European integration.
Below is a description of and reflection on my trip, which may perhaps encourage other MA students to cast their archival net more widely. Crucially, both my topic and the archives chosen offered the possibility of looking beyond solely British based sources and English language historiography.
It was important to be organised prior to my departure for Switzerland, as it would only be possible to visit once. First, from my previous research I had already gathered together existing work that others had done on the Committee. This was not a large literature, but did include a collection of published official resolutions and declarations. I studied these carefully for the period I was interested in, which was roughly from 1955 to 1958.
Secondly, I checked the archive’s website which provides additional information regarding the Committee, namely an inventory of the records held, together with contact details for the archivist. The next step was to get in touch with them, which I did by e-mail. This was essential as they are a small centre and need advance warning of any visit. I asked questions and provided them with an idea of which records I was particularly interested in. Once this was done I could determine how many days were needed onsite and could then arrange the practical details of booking transport and accommodation.
The archives are located within the grounds of the Lausanne University. I made sure to book accommodation somewhere within walking distance of it, in addition to allowing extra time for a little sightseeing. A note on language: I speak French, which made it easy, and some level of language skills is obviously needed for this type of trip. However, it is not an insurmountable barrier: in terms of the preparation described above for example, the website is in multiple languages and the archivists could speak some English. Being enthusiastic and interested in their archive also helped when communicating with them.
My impression on arrival was positive. The weather was warm and the foundation is housed in an old farmhouse set in woodland within the wider university campus and close to the shores of Lake Geneva. It is a lovely setting and each evening I went down to the lake to review the notes taken during the day and plan what to do for the following one. The archivist was helpful: I was shown where everything was and the procedure for ordering documents was explained. They have a small room reserved for visiting researchers, which I had to myself.
The majority of the Committee’s records are available on microfiche. These were created some time ago and are of variable quality, in particular handwritten notes were often difficult to decipher. However this was easily resolved as on querying it, I was provided with the originals of the unreadable microfiches. Perhaps another advantage of visiting a small archive was that, up to a certain quantity, it was free to request copies of documents. These were collated and sent to me as a PDF file by e-mail, within a few days of my trip.
On language, most of the records were in French with a few in other languages. I would advise anyone working on their research language skills with a view to a future trip to the archives to firstly focus on the specific vocabulary that arises around your particular subject, and secondly to keep in mind that you can reach a level of passive understanding of a written text on a familiar topic much sooner than attaining a more general mastery, such as being able to speak or write.
The three days I had allowed for the research passed quickly. I was aiming to build a general picture of the Committee to set it within its wider context. To do so I consulted the records in a variety of ways, following the general plan I had previously prepared, but not sticking to it so rigidly as to be unable to react to what I was finding. For instance, I studied various draft resolutions and declarations, tracing aspects that had both changed and not changed before the final published versions. This is a good example of how an archival visit can reveal a completely different story to the one that might be interpreted from simply using digital access to the final published text. In the Committee’s reports I was interested not only in what topics were being raised but in the language used to justify and explain specific courses of action, together with how they defined certain concepts.
Of particular use was a large file relating to the set-up of the Monnet Action Committee. In this I was lucky to find additional details of the background experience of several participants that I had struggled to trace previously. There was also some interesting correspondence which gave insights into individuals’ thinking and opinions. Finally, I didn’t ignore what could be termed administrative records, for example the legal statutes of the committee and details on its funding and spending, which all provided additional information on how it worked internally as an organisation.
In summary, I came away with a full notebook for my project. But it was also an interesting experience in itself to visit an archive in Switzerland and wouldn’t have been something I would have had the opportunity of doing outside the context of a History MA course. Based on my experience I would encourage others to consider broadening their research agenda to include non-British sources where appropriate, and to take advantage of the support that is available for such projects.
Gillian, 2016/17 MA Contemporary History student, University of Birmingham.