I collect library cards like badges of honour. I’ve got some I’ve had for a long time – from the British Library, the Bodleian and an out-of-date one from Cambridge University Library. Of course, I also have a CARN (County Archives Research Network) ticket and one for the National Archives.
More recently, I have also acquired some foreign ones from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, the Archivio di Stato in Florence and the Archivio Segreto and the Biblioteca Apostolica in the Vatican. It’s like collecting stamps, just sadder – and the picture, if there is one – is always of me.
In the age of digital photography this means I have also acquired a collection of unflattering mug shots of myself, though some of them have admittedly been taken in nice locations.
Most recently, I’ve been to Rome and the Vatican to see if my republican exiles left any traces in the eternal city in the 1660s and in particular in the records of the Roman cardinals, whom Henry Neville (1619-94) learnt to flatter and Algernon Sidney (1623-83) appears to have been on first-name terms with.
It’s quite an experience to get inside the holy walls of the Vatican. The first time around (armed with application material and letters of recommendation etc), I had to convince the Swiss guards that I had a sufficiently legitimate reason to enter and then leave my passport with the Vatican police to go and get my reader’s ticket. Once you have got your tessara for the Vatican Archives or Library, you just present it to the guards each morning on your way in and you are fine.
I must say, I’ve never seen a better-organised depository than the Archivio Segreto. While there is no online catalogue, the staff (numerous, friendly and helpful) make more than up for it. If you are standing around looking a bit puzzled – as I frequently do – someone will immediately ask you what you are looking for, and if they can help. Usually they can.
Once you’ve found your way around the Index Room and the hundreds of volumes of indeces lined up on the shelves, including the handlists converting old signatures into the corresponding new ones, you can order up to three items a day. That is usually enough to keep you going until the library closes at 1pm.
The only annoying thing – for non-Romans – is that you have booked an expensive research trip, with a hotel ideally in the vicinity of the Vatican included, and the archive is closed in the afternoon. In extraordinary circumstances you can get a special permission from the Prefect to work there in the afternoon as well. But I don’t think I’m important enough. So it’s best to coordinate your archival work with some work in the equally excellent, stunningly beautiful and newly refurbished Biblioteca Apostolica next door, which is open until 5.15pm.
Alas, they only take orders before 12pm, when you are still working in the Archivio Segreto… You see where this is going. But it is all in the planning. You need a way to finish work at the Archivio before 12pm, so you can go and order something in the Biblioteca for the afternoon. I have been wondering if it is ok (while you are still checked into the Archivio) to just walk across the Cortile della Biblioteca, which is shared by both institutions, to do that, but I have not tried.
If all fails, there is also the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale near Termini Station, where you can work until 7pm, or a range of university libraries. Alas, Italians know how to live. So you will hardly find a place that is open – for work – beyond 7pm. But by then it’s time for an early evening drink anyway.