There is a feeling of suspense about an archive that a library just doesn’t have. In the library I request printed published texts with an author and a title. The books I order are usually relevant to my research project, although some titles are deceptive. (The “hundert und sechzig Blümlein” in the Arithmetischer cubiccossicher Lustgarten turned out to be 160 math problems.) I can read these books comfortably in spite of the vagaries of sixteenth-century spelling. It is highly tempting to stay in the security of the Zeughaus reading room, order more books, and examine the use of New World medicinal plants in a variety of almanacs, garden manuals, herbals and medical guides. Yet how much real-life immediacy it would add to see the personal medical formulas and pharmacy holdings that people jotted down and used every day.
Still, it was with some trepidation that I entered the reading room of the Braunschweig city archive on a January morning to meet the unknown challenges of 16th-century apothecary records. Undoubtedly, they would be written by different hands over the years. The paper might be fragile, the ink faded, and the writing illegible. I may just sit and stare hopelessly, trying to make some meaningful notes out of mysterious scratches and wondering when I could respectably just leave. Some historians claim to be “archive rats.” They just love immersing themselves in the archives. I haven’t been won over yet. But that may be changing.
My first experience was last November in the Wolfenbüttel city archives where I took full notes on two documents, partial notes on others, and puzzled over some which appeared to be written in code with disappearing ink. I was pleasantly surprised to find more useable records in the Braunschweig Stadtarchive, especially a dated series of pharmacy inventories in which the New World plants I was looking for stood out prominently. On March 9 I returned to my home base in Wolfenbüttel from a successful visit to city archives in Munich and Augsburg. No, I couldn’t read everything. But I could certainly read more, and I have learned two things.
First, don’t judge an archive by its appearance. It took me three hours to find the unprepossessing entrance to the reading room for the Augsburg records I needed, but I couldn’t even get through all the manuscripts they had, and the room is only open once a week.
The archivist was very helpful and I’m enthusiastic about a return trip. Second, it’s not just that the archives are getting better, Iam getting better. I can assess the handwritten documents faster and identify relevant information more easily than I could a month ago. It may be time to revisit the Stadtarchiv Wolfenbüttel.