The (Un)exciting Life of Historical Research
„You are going where?“ – „To Zürich.“ – „And you are doing what?“ – „Well, I am visiting a library.“ - „…?“
It’s not easy to explain my work to a friend, who has nothing to do with historical research. And she is right: why would I be moving from Germany to Karlskrona in Sweden to work as an Early Stage Researcher and then leave Karlskrona for a week ‘only’ to visit a library in Switzerland? As this means taking the bus to the train station, the train from Karlskrona to Copenhagen, the flight from Copenhagen to Zürich. And vise versa, with all its delays and construction sites and replacement bus services and… During these long journeys there is a lot of room for meaningless philosophical reflections about Karlskrona, like ‘what is the correlation between a beautiful place and the end of the world’?
But even though my friends’ confusion is justified, the reason for my travelling is as simple as anything: being a historian I am working a lot with books and old papers and even more books and meanwhile some digital sources as well. But following Murphy’s law these tonnes of paper needed for research (if they exist!) are usually not stored where the researcher has their office and gets paid for their work. And even though an army of librarians and archive staff is working on scanning articles or book chapters and are sending books to many places, there are always these collections and libraries you just have to visit in person. So if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad,… You understand.
One of these places is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, known as the ETH Zürich, which is one of the most prestigious universities in Europe. During the past 50 years, a highly productive research has been done at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at Campus Hönggerberg. It is this institute and the libraries there I was interested in.
While riding the bus from Bucheggplatz to the institute up the holy mountain of knowledge (or geographically spoken: the Hönggerberg), a surrealistic feeling engulfed me: the sun was rising, colouring the sky in all imaginable shades of orange, red, violet and pink. But not just the sky, even the lake (Zürichsee) itself, which is surrounded by the beautiful town of Zürich and a range of mountains, newly cowered with snow. I had never bought a postcard like this, devaluating it as pure unadulterated kitsch and as one of the worst versions of the cliché of Switzerland. But suddenly I found myself leaving the bus at the next stop taking pictures myself. And, arriving at the campus, I found this centre of technology, known in the whole world, surrounded by green pastures and grazing cows. What a privilege to be there!
Before leaving for Zürich, another friend who is not involved in research at all, said with shining eyes: “You are going to Zürich for your research? HOW exciting!” And I was wondering, what she was thinking this was all about? Usually I am the only one who is excited about long, long, looong hours spent with fusty books in dark rooms with stuffy air, listening to the annoying sound of the different types of scanners for hours...
Of course, it’s not the circumstances I am excited about, but the unbelievable amount of knowledge I have access to, and the possibility to take some of this knowledge home with me in hundreds of digital files. But no. Actually, it wasn’t exciting at all but very tiring. My colleague and I were using the one scanner at hand continuously during the opening hours of the library for five days. On day 2, someone from the library staff asked how long we were going to stay. The next morning, we were greeted with this knowing, pitiful smile, offering more coffee and many, many jokes to lighten our hearts, to the undying sound of the sheet feed scanner. On day 4, my concentration had totally ceased. While I was feeding the scanner, my colleague was looking through the scans and renaming the files. Suddenly she laughed out loud, she had opened a file with more than 20 nicely scanned white pages. I had put an article into the scanner upside down and the machine had made a copy of the white reverse side…
Time for a break!
The breaks! Lunch! Coffee!
These times were special to me. Every day I met new people who are working in the field of historical research, somehow related to architecture and urbanism. It felt like an intellectual homecoming: they understood my language! No, I am not speaking about German since my ability to understand Swiss-German is more than capable of improvement! I am speaking about the language of historians and people dealing with historical research. How to ask questions, how to deal with answers, sometimes even how to make jokes! But in addition, they knew so much about the topics I am dealing with in my research. They were asking questions which made me think more deeply about my approach. They were telling me names, institutions and books that could be interesting for my work and some shared files with me from their own collections of sources and their researches. Scientific work at its best.
On the last day of our stay in Zürich, we were asked whether we would make it in time? And we were offered somebody who could scan more documents for us, if we have to leave before finishing?
We looked at them with tired eyes. Thank you very much, we really, really appreciate this offer! But… Taking into account what we already have (3,3 GB, which means several thousand pages in 1096 files), realism beats idealism: at the end, somebody has to read all this.
Text and photo: Susanna Weddige