Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Archive Trip

At the coalface - the Archive of the Archdiocese of Poznan

On sabbatical leave and armed with a travel grant from the Oxford History Faculty, I spent last week in the western Polish city of Poznań, on a research trip for my current book project (ahead of the Euro 2012 football fans who will descend on the city en masse in June). I was there to look at 16C sources in the Archdiocesan Archive, which I could see clearly as my Ryanair flight swooped down over the city – a square, red-roofed building on Poznan’s impressive cathedral island, in the Warta River.

If a conference is the most socially exhausting experience in academic life (speaking to people almost non-stop from 8am to 11pm), the archive trip is the academic equivalent of solitary confinement – multiple days on your own in a foreign city where you know precisely nobody. It’s not like a business trip, because although sitting in remote archives is serious professional work for historians, there is no secretary organising your travel, no local office or clients responsible for looking after you, far less providing entertainment and welcome. The inhabitants of Poznań I’d come to see have been dead for 500 years, leaving only traces in 16C ecclesiastical records and the (heavily refurbished) buildings in which they lived.

Poznań at least has the advantage of being a major city with an attractive historic centre, so I was able to browse bookshops, peer at old churches, sit in cafes and conduct a tour of restaurants outside archive opening hours. The most psychologically testing archive trips I’ve had have been to pretty but very small Polish towns, like Gniezno or Włocławek, spending 7-15 days alone in a place which the Rough Guide suggests could be comprehensively toured in a couple of hours. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the same hotel restaurant, watched by the same four silent waiters, reading the same novel at every meal for days or weeks at a stretch, quickly feels like Groundhog Day. After a short spell of this, with 16C clerical handwriting swimming before your eyes, speaking to nobody all day long apart from the archivist and the aforementioned waiters, you start to wonder if you’re going a little bit crazy. And even on archive trips to sunny and vibrant places like Poznań, no matter how well the research itself is going at the coalface of crumbling 16C papers, there are always two voices in my head - one saying ‘how exotic and exciting this is!’ and the another, slightly more persistent, saying ‘what an earth am I doing here?’.


  1. Solitude and uninterrupted research...sounds like pure heaven to me!

  2. Hi Natalia,
    Kudos for soldiering on there! The photo says it all, but what exciting information you must be coming across! Best wishes and happy hunting in a hopefully organized archive!
    Kind regards,
    Monica Sadie
    Cape Town, South Africa

  3. Yes, in many respects of course I have no right to complain - the weather in Poznan was wonderful, the archive full of great riches for historians of the early Reformation, and it is one of the best organised and efficiently run ecclesiastical archives in Poland I have come across. But after touching down at Stanstead Airport, for a few hours it did feel a bit strange and unnatural having conversations with people, after all that silence, typing and reading...