My first experience with archival work began with a student’s assistant job. My main task was to assist Dr. Nina Janz in a project concerning the History of Justice in Luxembourg (HISTJUST). I did not have any particular expectations except for the thought that I would be dealing with historical documents in a way or another at the National Archives. That was my main motivation when I applied for the job. I remember the very first court case that I read, dating from more than a hundred years ago, as well as the name of the accused. It was a murder case. As I read the different documents, police protocols, testimonies and the accusation act I could vividly picture the scenes described. A factory worker comes back from work and then goes to have a drink with his friends. He is told that his wife is supposedly having an affair. He comes back to his house and notices another person in the household. In a fit of rage, he takes out a knife, runs after the unwelcomed guest and deals him the fatal blow. He was judged guilty. Looking at the photograph of the accused I kept wondering how he felt and what happened to him afterwards.
Apart from helping with organizational tasks, I was assigned to work on a source corpus from the Luxemburgish Cour d’Assises. The source corpus was composed of individual court cases. Although a case could include more than one name depending on the number of perpetrators. Each case usually contained an accusation act, police records, various investigation reports, testimonies, letters from layers, occasionally letters from the accused, plans, occasionally photos or even certain objects like bullets. The corpus needed to be entered into the archival database of the National Archives. It is unusual for a student to start working with primary sources that are not yet accessible to the public right away, especially those connected to criminal justice. My daily challenge was to go through different case files and collect main information about each crime, such as name of the culprit, dates, locations, and, if available, additional information that seemed interesting. Most of the files also needed to move to proper archival “housing” by moving them to boxes and order them into new files. The work usually went smoothly, except when a case contained several names in which case it took me longer to process everything. I mainly dealt with court cases from 1900 until 1940. Though prior to the beginning of my work I had thought that I would also have a possibility to see older documents from the 19th century. Later on, I was also tasked with summarizing certain cases (for an upcoming virtual expo). Though it might sound easy it always took me more time to complete since the simplification of complex case files into a readable text is a quite difficult task.
Going through old criminal cases and reading about them can be truly interesting and even funny at times (I always found the medical-psychological reports on the criminals of the time quite amusing. They often concluded that the criminal was either a “moral degenerate” or an “imbecile”. In another investigation it was concluded that a majority of a criminal’s ancestors were “constitutional degenerates”, meaning carrying an innate trait. Furthermore, the reports provided a deeper insight into the criminal’s behavior and thoughts). It provided me with more insight into archival as well as historical work: there are a lot of documents emanating from various different institutions and persons for different periods of time. The complexity of the sources allowed me to understand that each story has to be researched from different angles and that all of the sources that may be available must be used; in other words: that one file gives us only a glimpse of past realities and the researcher has to go as deep as they can to find out more about the context of the crime. Furthermore, I gained insight into archival work; there are various documents and they need to be rightly classified and organized.
Working in the Archives also reminded me of the digitalization process and all the questions related to it such as: what would the overall cost be? Which documents are deemed more important? Can everything be digitized? Is it worth potentially damaging or destroying a document in order to preserve it digitally? How could more people get involved in the process?
I consider that it would be ideal if students spent more time working in the archives within their lessons. There is a difference between reading some secondary literature and thinking that you know everything and actually going to the archives, seeing different documents and working with primary sources. The work in the archives also provided me with a greater “awareness of the past”.
I am always impressed seeing the huge amount of material in the archives and it often makes me think of what we actually know and the amount of information we still ignore (or maybe some interesting finding can be right in front of our eyes without us noticing it at first). The task of the historian or the researcher is not a small one. Yet, it is terrible to remember that there have been many instances in the past where documents and archives got destroyed.
I am grateful to have had the chance to work with these interesting primary sources and to have learnt many techniques that will help me in future research projects.