Monday, June 6, 2011

A Legal Historian's First Book, Part II: Archival Research

When I began my dissertation back around the turn of the century, archival research seemed pretty high-tech, at least when compared with the old pencil and notecard approach. I would bring my laptop to the archive and type detailed notes, often transcribing direct quotations. Occasionally, I would request a photocopy of a particularly important document, but there was a strong incentive to scrimp. Archives often limited how many copies each patron could request per year. Moreover, the price was high--25 cents per page or more.

In those days, I would spend anywhere from a week to a month in an archive, crashing on a friend's couch, house-sitting, or staying in a cheap motel or sublet. I spent quality time at wonderful libraries such as the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University), the Library of Congress, and the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College. I discovered treasures such as the Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Archives at the Washington and Lee University School of Law in beautiful Lexington, Virginia. I awoke at the crack of dawn to visit the Southwest Regional Division of the National Archives on the outskirts of Ft. Worth, Texas, which opens under cover of darkness at 6:30am.

By the time I was finishing research for my book, everything had changed, much of it for the better. No longer a graduate student, I was fortunate enough to have a job and a research budget. I also had a spouse and a baby at home, as well as teaching and other professional obligations. Luckily for me, these life changes were accompanied by a technological transformation: the rise of digital photography. Now I could do the historian's equivalent of a hit and run--a marathon day or three in an archive, armed with my camera, taking virtually unlimited pictures free of charge. Toward the end, when I knew--or thought I knew--exactly what I wanted, I could even hire a local student or freelance researcher to take the photos and upload them to Picasa. It would have been difficult to travel to the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta with a newborn; instead, I perused the papers of Attorney General Griffin Bell from the comfort of my home.

These advances have obvious advantages. Archival research has become cheaper and faster, requiring less time away from home and (other) work. Bringing more home means not only a broader source base, but the ability to go back and reread sources later. There is a downside, though. I miss seeing new places in a (relatively) leisurely manner and having long, in-person chats with archivists. Now I often return home with thousands of photos but only a dim idea of their content. Gathering sources has become increasingly separate from the process of reading and digesting the sources, which may mean fewer spontaneous tangents that lead to unexpected discoveries.

And managing this volume of information is tricky. I used to create the electronic equivalent of notecards, using the searchable database Filemaker Pro; now I am searching for a new system better adapted to the reality that taking copious notes on every page of archival material has become a practical impossibility. I dream of a day when my digital photos can be seamlessly converted into text-searchable documents, but haven't yet been able to find software to pull that off.

How have you negotiated the technological changes of the past decade(s)? Do you have a good note taking/source management system?

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