Thursday, February 12, 2009

Working in Archives #3: Using the archive

There are, as a broad generalization, two ways to use an archive.  One way is to go with a specific set of documents in mind.  The other is to go with a general collection in mind or with a hope that the archive will have useful material that you haven't identified in advance.  This post speaks mostly to the second category, though even if you fall into the first category today's suggestion can lead to useful finds.

So you arrive at the archive, you register, what do you do next?  I would estimate that most people's instinct is to dive immediately into the documents.  But I would suggest another tack.  First, it is always useful to sit down and speak to the archivist about what you are looking for.  Some will be more helpful than others, but they are ostensibly the people who know what the archive has.  Second, I have found it useful to spend some time at the beginning just perusing the catalogues and the bookshelves in the reading room.  Simply paging through the paper catalogues gives one information about the sorts of documents in the archive, the plausibility of a research project, often lots of full or partial transcriptions of documents, references to printed works, and almost always lots of new ideas for further work.  Perusing the bookshelves is the best way to familiarize oneself with the available reference works.  More importantly, however, the archive is likely to have all sorts of obscure scholarship relevant to their collections that one probably can't find in the average university library.  So the archive reading room is just an extension of pre-document preparation.  That is where you will find the book about the paleography of that one particular region of France in the seventeenth century (luckily, or I would not have made any progress in Lyon), and that is where you will find a 75-year-old book by some local historian that transcribes key documents or that tells you what collection will be the most useful.  Even if you go to an archive to look at specific documents, spending time looking through the bookshelves can often be very helpful.  I was recently working in the Parliamentary Archives in London--which is a great archive to work in.  I thought I only wanted a few documents.  When I finished with them, I looked over the reading room reference collection, found a set of volumes on the archival series I had been working with, went through the relevant volumes, and turned up some material far more valuable that the documents I had come to look at.  

In addition, going to an archive for the first time can be very intimidating.  There are likely to be a bunch of people there doing genealogical research or local history, who all know each other, and who all give the impression of knowing a great deal about what they are doing.  Spending some time becoming acquainted with the archive itself is a good way to ease into the project and let some of the intimidation factor wear off before starting on the difficult task of working with the documents.

The next step, then, if you are working with difficult-to-read documents, is to order up documents for which you have located a transcription.  These are not necessarily documents that are of particular interest to you.  They are really rosetta stones.  To the extent possible, avoid starting cold with a document in a new or difficult script, because that is so frustrating it can discourage one entirely.  Easing in by being able to test oneself against a transcription--which also helps one master the abbreviation system of the time, place, and language--is much more efficient and less masochistic.


Shag from Brookline said...

I enjoy these posts on archives research. Will there eventually be an article incorporating your posts on this subject that can be readily downloaded and printed?

Mitch Fraas said...

I would add to the great advice here that even in the most digitally minded archives (where it's tempting never to use anything else), the hardcopy catalogs in the archives themselves are usually much more thorough and useful. I've often been fooled by a search of an archive's online catalog into thinking that nothing of interest was to be had, only to find later that indeed many items never made it online.

Though in the end, I think both online and paper catalogs often suffer from the overly broad date range. There's nothing like getting a collection or box labeled 1725-1800 and finding it contains 50 documents from 1799 and 1 from 1725.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thanks for this, Emily.

About those other researchers at the archives...I got some great advice from Ellen Schrecker, historian of the McCarthy era, when I met her on my first trip to a presidential archive, the Truman Library, many years ago. I was also intimidated by all the others. But Ellen said: "Get to know people. They'll find things for you."

By the time I visited the JFK Library, I was a little more comfortable. Whenever I had a chance I would just ask what others were working on. And though I often don't like to take breaks at the archives (to save all my time for the research while they're open), sometimes I would organize lunches and even dinners. Being something of a social secretary for your fellow researchers can have its benefits. Since others knew what I was working on, when I had trouble finding material I needed in the files that seemed most relevant, another scholar, working on a completely different topic, stumbled upon what I needed in a collection I never would have looked at.

And a final tip: at those archives in places like Indepenence, MO or Abilene, KS, there's nothing like having a car. You become indispensable to your colleagues. If they don't return the favor with an archival find, you may still have made fast friends, perhaps with a senior colleague you never expected to meet.