Earlier in the summer, Erin posted from a research trip in Boston. She discussed the pressures that scholars face in the archives to get things done fast, often by taking a zillion photographs and wading through them later. But research trips don’t stop when the school year begins, and David’s on one right now! We thought we’d talk today about the wide variety of research experiences that historians have. Historical research isn’t often glamorous. It’s actually frustrating and dirty and really weird.
Chris Bouton: Let me offer a list of the places where I’ve done research: Jackson, Mississippi; Columbia, South Carolina; Frankfurt, Kentucky; New Orleans; Natchez, Mississippi; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Richmond, VA
Hardly a list of America’s most glamorous or accessible cities
Erin Bartram: For me, for the dissertation project at least, it’s Boston, three places in Cambridge, Washington DC, and Stockbridge and Lenox, MA.
David Mislin: Yeah, it’s tough. Things are scattered. I’m struggling right now because I have two days next week that I could do a trip, and there’s stuff I urgently need in New York, DC, and Chicago
Erin: Highly accessible cities, terribly expensive cities.
Chris: And there’s the tradeoff
David: I don’t know if it’s this way for you, but I always feel like research is a constant process of triaging material
Where do I get the most bang for my buck
David: What has the least chance of being a dud, etc.
Chris: And a lot of my trips were duds
Vicksburg and Frankfurt especially
Erin: Absolutely. Now, doing some fill-in research for the manuscript, I realize that I triaged incorrectly the first time around. There was amazing stuff in collections I set to the side. But why did I set them to the side in the first go-around? They had no finding aid, not even a box list, and I couldn’t spend precious time wading through them, maybe for nothing.
When historians go into an archive to do research, what they’re looking at is what we usually call “manuscript material” – letters and journals and record books, rather than published material. One of the things archivists do when they get a collection is organize it, both physically and intellectually. The physical organization is about preservation and storage. The intellectual organization produces what we call a “finding aid,” which is basically a directory of what’s in the collection and how to request it. There are lots of ways to organize collections – by date, name, author, subject – separating out business records, or ledger books, or other weird random junk.
Chris: And for a lot of materials, there are no finding aids. This is understandable, archives have limited resources and finding aids take careful time and effort to construct.
Erin: One problem I usually run into is that family papers are often organized around the men in the family. This means sometimes the women’s papers don’t get saved. It also means that sometimes single women are hard to find in collections – are they with their father’s papers, or maybe their brother’s?
David: Nor are they always super useful. They sometimes list only that there is correspondence from certain dates, but not who the correspondence is with.
Erin: At the Longfellow house, where I was hunting down a single woman from the Dana family, the entire correspondence of this sprawling family has been organized by decade. So there are just 10 folders of the 1820s, and within that, there’s no organization. And it’s not their fault – they’re NPS, and they have almost no money and one staff member.
Chris: And some of the finding aids are quite old, when the focus on the materials–say family correspondence was interested in the men, but as historical trends change, that aid becomes less useful
Let me share a similar story about the challenges historians face in archives.
So I research physical confrontations between slaves and whites and the best sources for that are in court cases. In Virginia, the Governor received a copy of the trial transcript of any slave convicted of a capital crime. These transcripts are within the Governor’s papers, but the papers themselves do not have a specific finding aid, pointing out where they might be.
In the Governor’s papers, materials are organized chronologically. So if I wanted a trial transcript from May 7, 1833. I had to page up the materials from say Jan-June 1833.
And then find the folder that contained everything from May 1-15, and then sort through the entire folder to see if it was there.
Often times I would have to look in the previous or next folders just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
Because they often wouldn’t be within strict chronological order.
Erin: And you’re depending on the record dates having been correct, which isn’t always the case. I’ve learned to question the year on any letter written in January and February, because people forget the year has changed and date their letters wrong.
Chris: The only other option would’ve been to start in 1801 and review every single document in the Governor’s papers through 1865, which would’ve taken years
Yes, and often times I couldn’t find cases that I knew existed. Why they weren’t in the Governor’s papers, I’m not sure.
But I also didn’t have too much time to worry, because, to go back to David’s point from earlier, we often have limited time.
So I photograph the case and move on.
David: And I think you’re getting at one of the big questions of archival research: just how exhaustive to be. That’s especially true in the 20th century, when people had access to typewriters, so the volume of material is exponentially larger.
Chris: And it’s one of the issues that I struggled with. I’m sure there are cases I missed. I’m sure they have lots of good information that would be useful to my project.
David: On the one hand, it’s much more pleasant because it’s easy to read. On the other hand, though, there’s about a hundred times more stuff.
Chris: But I just did not have the money or time to be as wholly comprehensive.
Erin: And that’s a problem for researchers and archivists alike.
So, let me quickly compare the three places I worked in Cambridge
They are a good example of the different experiences
Houghton Library, on the campus of Harvard, is probably the fussiest. You have to get an ID card in the regular library, then find the archive (nothing at Harvard is marked well, because if you were supposed to be there, you’d know where everything was).
In the collections I work with, you page things by the item
They have the time and money to index collections down to the item, but it means you can’t just page a box of 1850s letters or all the letters from so-and-so.
At the Schlesinger Libary down the street, which is part of Radcliffe, it’s a bit more like what you’ll find in lots of places. There, they brought me out a box of half a dozen journals from one of the people I study, and I could go through them one by one.
Both of those are probably what you imagine archives are like – big bright rooms with wooden tables and all the rest.
The third archive is at the Longfellow House, which as I said, is part of the National Park Service. The archive is located in the basement of the house. You schedule an appointment with Chris, the wonderful archivist, who meets you at the door, guides you to the basement, through a door frame with a curtain across it, into a room *the size of the bathroom at MHS*, which has her desk and a long folding table for one researcher.
The materials are organized as well as they can manage on a shoestring budget, but they do have a helpful family tree on a piece of oaktag that you can prop up in front of you while you work.
I think it’s important that people know that federally-sponsored things are not rolling in dough. The private archives are often much fancier and user friendly. The federal archivists I’ve worked with, though, have been universally amazing and helpful.
Chris: The last point raises another time and cost issue. Archives themselves vary greatly in wealth and how often they are open. My archives are often state-run, meaning they’ve suffered a lot from recent budget cuts.
That means fewer staff, fewer hours that they’re open, making it that much harder for young researchers to get access to the documents they need.
David: Mine as well. For a current project, I’m researching at the Ohio Historical Society. Because of state budget cuts, they’re now only open Wednesday-Saturday from 10am-5pm. It’s really horrible.
I give them credit for keeping Saturday hours, which is really important from a public history perspective in that the archives are accessible to people who work during the week. But those are such limited hours it’s really difficult to make headway there.
Chris: State archives are often only open 6 or 7 hours a day and if you only have a few days or maybe a week, you have to make every moment count.
It’s why I thank my lucky stars when an archive has a liberal photography policy
Because it means I can find what I need, photograph it, and then process it later. By process, I mean read the documents closely and begin transcribing them.
Erin: And that’s why we eat granola bars in the cloakroom for lunch.
David: I actually thought I was the only one who did that, so thanks Erin J
Chris: I do it too.
Erin: When I worked in the Paulist Archives in Washington, they were open limited hours too (though again, very helpful), so I ate clif bars in the bathroom every day so I could get in all the research hours possible.
Chris: Bathrooms, cloakrooms, hallways.
David: Yup. I’ve done that at nearly every archive I’ve visited
Chris: I try to eat a big breakfast and then grab an early dinner.
Erin: Sometimes in the summer, I’ll go outside and eat my granola bar leaning against the nearest tree, just to give my hands a chance to warm up
David: I have my official archival fleece
Because they are always so cold!
Chris: Dark wash jeans and sweater, that’s my archival uniform
Comfortable, but also professional-ish
David: I have to admit I’ve gotten much less hung up on what I wear to the archive than I used to
Erin: Sometimes you’re doing research in other people’s houses. That adds a whole other set of wrinkles.
Chris: For me, it keeps it simple.
Erin: How so?
Chris: When I’m packing and picking what I want to wear.
I have jeans and then multiple sweaters. That’s it.
David: Yeah, I used to wear khakis, button-downs
Chris: I did too
Erin: Ah okay, I was thinking beyond clothing.
David: Now it’s jeans/tshirts
Chris: I never wore a tie or anything, but I tried to look really nice.
Now that I’ve found something that works, I don’t deviate.
David: I think routine is key with archival research, because it’s so intense. Having a system that works is important.
Erin: My “nice” clothes involve skirts, and I don’t like researching in skirts/dresses, so I think I’m a bit casual. I think there’s not a great middle ground for women, unfortunately.
Chris: I agree. I leave the archive exhausted.
Erin: Every day.
And it can be very hard when you spend the whole day, your body hurts, you’re starving…and you know that you found nothing of use.
Chris: Often I’ll just go back to my hotel and crash. And once I take my shoes off, it’s hard to leave the room again.
David: Yeah, if finances allow, I try to stay in hotels for archive trips. It’s hard to be a good houseguest after reading old manuscripts for eight hours.
Chris: That’s why I prefer hotels and never do an Airbnb where I’m sharing a room.
Erin: I did Airbnb for the first time this summer and it was fine but also I just wished I were in a hotel room most nights
Chris: I don’t want to worry about being social, I’m tired and I don’t want to be around anyone. I need to recharge and for me that means being alone.
Erin: And I have to move all of the photos off my iPad into my cloud storage, and keep them organized, so that I have room for more the next day
David: Usually I rationalize the expense by saying I need time to organize notes and plan for the next day, which is important to the extent I have the bandwidth
Chris: Those are nights where having a Netflix or Hulu account is really useful. Old episodes of Top Chef! Parks and Rec!
Or I wind up watching episodes of Chopped on the hotel TV.
Erin: I do try to keep a bit of a research journal, which mostly involves making notes of things to look at later/on another trip.
David: Ooh, that’s a great idea
Chris: I always try to go to bed early, though I never do because I’m on the road and in a hotel bed.
Erin: I leave myself lots of notes at the end of the day in my daily research log. Like [you left off here but if you have a chance look at folder x]
Chris: Because I want to get to the archive when it opens.
And I organize my stuff the night before, but I’ve found that I don’t bring a lot to the archive
Camera, computer, pencil (archives don’t like pens–lest you mark up a document) and a legal pad. I have folders, but most archives don’t like those because you could be stealing documents.
I’ll take a few call slips before I leave for the day and fill them out the night before.
That way I can walk in the door and page material while I’m getting set up
Erin: But at the end of the day, you might get stuck waiting for an hour in the reading room, because there’s a backup or they’re short staffed, and you just have to sit there with no materials and wait.
Chris: I’ve never had that problem since I go to archives that aren’t usually busy and after a day or so, the archivists have a handle on what I’m doing.
So they know I’m working chronologically through Governor’s papers and how long I’m spending on a box. Additionally, at LVA, you can put 2 requests in at a time. So there’s always something waiting for me.
I don’t have a lot of lag time between material.
David: I’ve not had that problem either, for reasons like Chris’s. I also think that in some places (though not Houghton) making friends with the archivist can help in situations like that. They can bring stuff faster, or more than the usual amount.
Chris: Yeah, at a place like LVA, there’s only ever a couple of people in the research room, so the archivists have a good sense of what’s going on.
Let me take a second here to echo Erin’s praise of archivists. The overwhelming majority have been extremely helpful and generous.
Even as I’m burying them with call-slips.
Erin: There’s a reason they get called out by name in acknowledgements
Chris: And without them, our research wouldn’t get done.
David: And many will go out of their way for you. The American Jewish Archive stayed open late for me because I had a flight out late in the evening and nothing else to do.
Erin: The archivist for the Paulists drove me to the Metro stop because it was bitterly cold in January, and gave me a spare scarf when I lost mine.
Chris: I have had archivists pull me aside to inform me that some material that I wanted wasn’t available because of a change in state law and apologize while cursing the state government.
David: I think you win, Chris.
Chris: That’s happened in more than one state.
Erin: In general, public archives are wonderful and you should support funding them
Chris: And, we all agree, archivists are wonderful people.