Leaving Lorient (To the left, Keroman Submarine Base). All photographs by the author.
This post consists of excerpts from the research diary I kept during my research trip to Groix, France, in December 2018. Groix is a small island off the coast of Brittany, France’s westernmost region. This investigation into Groix’s understudied past is part of a long-haul project on three small northern European islands that I presented in a previous post. I am currently in the final phases of research for the Groix portion of the trilogy, as I have now read all of the secondary literature on the topic and scoured several Parisian and Breton archives. After another trip to the departmental archives (in Vannes) and the Lorient harbour and navy archives (also located in Lorient), I believe I will have enough material for a solid, well-documented book.
By the summer of 2018, I finally managed to scrounge up some funds for a one-week trip to the island; enough time, I believed, to peruse or photograph an unknown number of documents stored at the bottom of the town hall’s cupboard. Thus, I was well aware, before I even began writing the following pages, that a trip to Groix’s barely catalogued fonds would be a leap into the unknown. While every archive is a world of its own, ridden with idiosyncrasies, any well-organized researcher should not experience any major issue navigating such places, as long as he/she abides by the local etiquette. In the present case, however, it took me approximately two years to find out who was in charge of the municipal archives, only to realize that they were, in fact, the island’s best kept secret.
For the purpose of full disclosure, I would like to clarify that the idea of publishing excerpts from my research diary preceded the writing process. Although I tried my best to let the words flow, the outcome could be anything but the result of spontaneity. I could not adopt a stream-of-consciousness approach either, as this was intended as a research diary, not a creative writing experiment. Thus, I would not be surprised if some found the published version somewhat contrived. In my defence, I will simply answer that many primary sources historians use are also written with ulterior motives. In that regard, I plead guilty as charged: this report is artificial and has been proofread and amended. In addition to correcting the occasional typo or awkward sentence, I have taken the liberty of discarding the few paragraphs that have nothing to do with research, or history in general. In addition, although the “spirit” of the diary has been preserved, I must admit that I did censor some of its contents. Just as historians frequently engage in cherry-picking, source producers naturally select (more or less consciously) what they want to record and share with others.
That being said, I deemed it appropriate not to censor the few contemplative, frivolous moments that punctuate the diary. Since the present post purports to give a general idea of what a research trip looks like, it would have been unfair to portray historians as workhorses unconcerned with the real world. Also, not all researchers are alike, and no one trip to the archives is the same. The following pages reflect my own experiences and how I go about my business during the research phases of my projects. From the discussions I have had with various historians, I came to realize that each one of us has their own routines and strategies, which not only stem from our respective personalities, but are also shaped by the subjects we choose to investigate.
By now, you have probably realized that this diary should be treated like any other source. First of all, you should not take what follows at face value. Testimonies often are impressionistic, even when they aim for objectivity. Emplotment is, at the end of the day, a necessary evil. Secondly, please keep in mind that three simultaneously interdependent and autonomous dimensions are at play in every source, namely, (1) the intentio auctoris (the author’s intention), (2) the intentio operis (the work’s intention, or how a text can take a life of its own), and (3) the intentio lectoris (the reader’s intention). While I was always aware of (1), the power and personality (so to speak) of (2) occurred to me while copying the text. As for (3), it is now your business. Continue reading