Friday, June 19, 2015

Ms. Peppercorn Sends a Note from the Archives

The LHB's sage advice guru, Ms. Peppercorn, has popped her head out of the archives to offer some words of sympathy and encouragement to all you fellow treasure hunters:
These days, we are all dusty.  If not dusty, our eyes are bleary from staring at microfilm or trying to read seventeenth-century fraktur online, or some such hurdle placed carefully in the way of the researcher.  Such is the glamorous summer of the legal historian.

Ms. Peppercorn is among the sufferers, as are many of you.  One looks forward to archive trips, it seems, while teaching or reading endless tomes for graduate seminars.  The experience makes us wonder why the anticipation was keen.  Having lived on peanut butter and the odd dinner scrounged from understanding friends for the past three weeks, Ms. P. reached out to fellow researchers, to seek solace from other lonely and beleaguered scholars. 

From one, she learned that this legal historian understands such trips as “vacuum mode.”  Thousands and thousands of photographs, to be digested later.  This is a common experience among historians of more recent history, and there is lots of advice out there on how to manage the overload of images.  Sounds awful, frankly. Another researcher, who quite unacceptably reported that he enjoys these jaunts, said he contemplates the documents in a relaxed and unhurried way, and eats at greasy spoons.  A third reported a steady diet of vegetable soup and baked potatoes, for weeks.  This was one sufferer that we could identify with, as this scholar (like Ms. P) marches on her stomach. 

Yet we all hope for treasure, and the anxiety of such trips is a function of the pressure (plus the boring food, let’s be honest).  And we all make mistakes.  One sage counselor advised that “you have to be ready to re-visit your archive.”  Ouch. 

But it’s the sad truth.  Ms. P. finds that she can never quite figure out what the key points are to a set of primary documents until she starts writing.  Then, the hidden questions emerge, like demons.  In addition, there is the organization (dare we say, even the adequate taking) of notes.  The discipline is only possible, it seems, under the threat of having to use the damn things right away.  Thus starting to write or outline while on a research trip may be advisable, however painful. 

It’s better than coming back.

Then again, the thought of fellow sufferers in the archives is oddly comforting, and whatever your survival strategy, may the days be productive!  And may be all be doing something else, soon.
P.S. Scholars working in colonial or early national legal history with any Virginia hook should apply to Monticello, as they take great of of their fellows!
Do you all have any advice or words of encouragement for our pals laboring in the archives this summer? Feel free to post comments below.

And if you have a question that you would like to see Ms. Peppercorn address in her next post, send a message to the blog email address.