Research Progress Notes: Week of June 10th

I arrived in Sicily this week, and after struggling through some small mishaps, I started working.

I’m learning that powering through my anxieties and depression in the midst of research is not as much about forcing myself to work as it is about forcing myself to leave the house and seeing where my feet take me. On Thursday I had no particular plan to go to the archive – my plan was really just to get outside, get some produce so that I eat more than just leftover supermarket ravioli, and maybe see what the archives look like from the outside. But I was having enough small wins that I was emboldened to go inside.

It’s silly, but one thing that really helped was finding the leather goods store I stumbled on three years ago. I have their card, but it’s buried somewhere in a moving box back in California. So I couldn’t remember their name. I had a pin dropped on roughly the location of the store in my google map, but I knew it wasn’t quite right because the store itself hadn’t appeared on the map three years ago. That’s one of the peculiarities of Palermo – businesses and restaurants often don’t show up on maps in the maze of streets that is the best part of the city, and if you go at the wrong time of day, you’d never know they existed either, because most of these places fold up like a pocket knife. But I noticed that the pin on my map representing that store was right near the Biblioteca Communale, so I took the slightly less direct route to get there. Lo and behold, it’s still there, and still has amazing leather goods. I’ll undoubtedly stop there before I leave, because I pretty much promised myself a leather work bag from that place the last time I was here.

Let’s face it, I’m like a small child who can be bribed to keep walking with the promise of m&ms. So I kept going. The Biblioteca Communale is a small, forgotten library. It has a very old, classical-looking (perhaps actually classical?) façade, and inside it opens up to a cloister garden – I’m sure it’s actually a repurposed monastery, that would make a lot of sense. I ended up here because one of the two manuscripts I already know about is supposedly there, but apparently not by the call number that I know. So after being passed around between five different people, the librarians insisted that I go to the Biblioteca Regionale to see if my manuscript is there.

Palermo’s Biblioteca Regionale is also the main library for students in the city, so it’s central reading room is filled with undergraduates. This library has probably the best system I have seen for dealing with your bags. Rather than a locker room, they simply give out large bags that look almost exactly like IKEA shopping bags, but in red and with a zipper. You take everything you need out of your own bag, put it in the IKEA bag, zip it up, and close the zipper tab to a magnetic lock. Like at the Vatican, I left my passport with the front desk, who gave me a library card. The front desk sent me to a card catalog area, where the librarian told me to check with the librarians in the Fondi Antichi room – i.e. the people who deal with manuscripts. So I headed upstairs, through the circulation desk, the main reading hall (with a cloister garden just outside, of course), through an office and into a smaller back manuscript reading room, where there are six librarians who are each responsible for different aspects of the manuscript collection. In the best broken Italian I could muster, I explained that I was looking for a manuscript based on a clearly incorrect call number, and that the manuscript had something to do with medieval Islamic science. So two of the librarians got to work helping me hunt it down.

The biggest problem, I’ve discovered, is that there’s no catalog of medieval manuscripts in this library. That’s probably why medievalists who study Sicily keep looking at the same manuscripts over and over – they’re the only ones we really know about. Even the incorrect call number I have for this one manuscript took me a full day of searching in Columbia’s library two years ago – I had to wade through a book of scientific manuscripts in German and another book of manuscripts from a specific monastery in Italian. While the librarians set to work, I pulled up my MA thesis on my phone (have I mentioned recently that this dissertation is sponsored by Google, Android, and Dropbox? oh, and also lycamobile, for their ridiculous amounts of international data) and found my original citation. Luckily, in addition to the book in German where I found the call number, I also had all the sources that book listed that discussed this manuscript. That turned out to be the key, since one of them is a book published by the regional historical authority in Palermo all the way back in 1872, which of course the regional library has. The librarians helped me find that – I had to go back to the circulation desk and trade my library card for the book plus a receipt with my name on it. After reading through the book and determining that it described the manuscript I wanted, I gave it to the research librarian, who did some digging and was able to find the manuscript itself in the collection of the Biblioteca Communale. Well, at least I have the right call number now.

I also spent that time looking at a couple of other things, one of which was actually a manuscript. The manuscript in question is the other one I knew about before I arrived – it’s the cartulary (record book) of the monastery of Monreale. Monreale is the site of the copper doors I wrote my MA thesis about, and it’s pretty much defunct as a monastery. So its entire library was moved to Palermo. This manuscript is an internal record of manuscript donations to the library going back to 1115, although the manuscript itself is 16th century – the earlier bits were probably copied from an older version. I snapped a few photos quickly before the librarians could tell me not to take pictures of the whole book (I probably got about 20), enough time to get good images of all the pages mentioning years in the 12th century. I just barely skimmed it enough to know that it mentions Robert Guiscard, Roger I, Roger II, and William II, so my upcoming project is transcribing the images. The other books I looked at in the reading room were library catalogs for the two libraries in Palermo that I couldn’t get back in the US (even though, weirdly enough, I could get the catalog for the Monreale collection). That gave me a handful of other manuscripts to check out at the Biblioteca Regionale. I managed to pretty much finish all of this before that office closed at 1:30 (southern Italian siesta time, usually between 1:30 and 3:30 during the hottest part of the day) and the librarians shooed me out.

I had one other small win that day. I’ve been frustrated with myself for not really being able to speak Italian, since I learned Italian from Duolingo and reading academic books and journals. I just have never used it in a social setting or been forced to speak it. But I feel especially bad because I can actually understand it quite well, so for all that I can’t communicate very well, I tend to know what’s going on around me. I had a few moments of just relaxing and doing my best to put together words and sentences, and it’s certainly the most talking (and the longest period of listening) I’ve done in Italian. So when I got into my apartment, I had an incredibly hard time opening the door. I ducked around the corner to find my neighbor, an old man named Pino who runs a furniture shop, and easily told him “I can’t open the door”, probably the best full sentence I’ve put together. He helped me in and we had a good laugh about it.

Next week my Palermo adventure continues. I’ll be trying to transcribe the images I got from my manuscript this week, and maybe I’ll go back to both libraries to start looking at the other manuscripts I learned about.