If you happened to be at the NGSC-sponsored roundtable at the NASSR conference in Boston two weeks ago, you know that it was one of the best events we have organized so far! Truly, it was probably the highlight of the whole conference for me, and that’s saying something. Fun, Interesting, and amazingly useful, the panel brought together five incredibly accomplished (and let’s just say it: frickin’ cool) scholars in our field for a mini-course in archival research. I’ll do my best in this post to translate my notes (along with Kirstyn’s, thanks, KL!) into an efficient reference for anyone preparing to spend quality time in some alluring repository of old books, papers, and objects. If you’re like me, then even if you don’t have a research trip in the works right now, you might just find yourself itching to plan one. Anybody want to meet up at the British Library?
Special thanks again to our panelists Michelle Levy, Devoney Looser, Andrew Burkett, Dan White, and Jillian Heydt-Stevenson for sharing their insights. I have taken the liberty of organizing this post according to topic (rather than strictly by speaker), but have noted broadly who covered what. Now, here we go!
How to integrate archival research into your studies (Michelle Levy)
Before you embark upon archival research, take some time to approach it thoughtfully and deliberately.
- Consider what types of research actually requires the use of archival materials—that is, stuff that has not been republished in other more readily-available formats, or that contains vital information in its original material makeup. Book History and Material Studies projects require this, as do many kinds of academic side-projects such as critical editions, biographies, or edited collections of letters. Though these types of publications will not qualify a person for tenure, they become very useful resources; you might ask an advisor if they have such a pet-project in the works that you could help with—or eventually, you could do one of your own. (Also, think about where/how you might publish such a project, including in digital formats—check out PMLA’s “Little-known Documents” as an example).
- Be sure to build in TIME; archival research cannot be done at the last minute. You need time to sift through materials before you find the gems that matter. You need time to write applications for research fellowships, including the lead-time for letters of recommendation. You need time to learn the research techniques that reveal the documents’ secrets (see next item).
- Build research skills before you go. Take a course in book history or bibliography if you possibly can. Use the Special Collections of your home institution to get a sense of how they work, how often they contain non-catalogued materials, and how vital it is that you form a good relationship with the librarians.
- Take time to figure out WHERE you will need to go in order to look at the documents you need, and whether that institution provides any research fellowships. Some large institutions in the US do (like the Huntington, the Pforzheimer, and the Harry Ransom Center); most institutions in the UK do not (in which case, you might apply for a fellowship from your own university or some other funding body).
How to apply for research fellowships (Devoney Looser — see full text of her very useful handout HERE).
- Remember, the surest way to not get funding is to submit a shoddy application. You are in competition with lots of other smart people.
- Give your advisors plenty of lead-time to write you letters of recommendation (a month is polite).
- Show that you have specifically researched the holdings of the institution you plan to visit. Use their online catalogues and finding aids, talk to others who have researched there, and even consider calling and talking to the librarians and curators (as long as you’ll be asking them smart questions, and not ones you could have answered yourself if you had just looked at their website).
- The Project Narrative is the most crucial part. Don’t let another critic’s voice take center stage. Explain WHY your research is exciting and important. It is not enough to “fill a gap”—you must explain WHY the gap needs to be filled. And never begin your narrative with a quote from someone else!
- Remember that you’re writing to a committee that comes from several disciplines, not necessarily including Romanticism. Be sure that an educated non-romanticist could understand the importance of your project.
- Don’t give up if you don’t get the fellowship! Seek feedback, improve your application, and keep trying.
Tips for planning your research trip, including some packing essentials (Michelle Levy et al)
- When planning your research trip, travel off-season if you can; it will be cheaper and libraries will be less crowded, which means you will get your books faster and librarians will be more available to help you.
- Learn the archive’s rules and procedures before you go, so you don’t waste valuable time when you’re there. You can usually order your books in advance, and occasionally you have to do so.
- Read as much as you can before you go, including electronic forms of your primary documents, so that you can focus your precious time on the info you can’t get otherwise. Software like Adobe Professional is useful for taking notes on PDFs.
- Use a number of resources to plan the trip. Contact the archivists (with smart questions, of course); they are really helpful.
- ALWAYS get a letter of endorsement from your advisor, printed on university letterhead and signed in BLUE ink. Some institutions will not allow you access to their archives without this. Also, be sure to check whether they have other requirements, such as more than one form of ID, or a passport, or proof of current address.
- Every institution will have its own rules and restrictions on what you can bring into the archives, (be sure you understand their policies involving photography and reproduction) but pack yourself a basic “research baggie”—it will probably include pencils, a ruler, some paper, a magnifying glass, your laptop, a camera, and a jacket or sweater—libraries are CHILLY!
How to get the most out of your time in the archive itself (Andrew Burkett and Dan White; check out the full text of Andrew Burkett’s talk HERE)
- Have a plan, but be open to discovery! Let the archive drive you, but have a clear sense of your research questions (start with the broadest one, which is “I want to learn everything about _____.”)
- Expect to be overwhelmed completely by the avalanche of information you might uncover.
- MAKE FRIENDS with the archivists and curators. They can help give you a roadmap through those materials and focus your search. Some archivists will be very helpful, others markedly frosty; kill them all with kindness! They hold a lot of power, and if they decide they like you, their input can radically impact your work.
- Allow yourself to enjoy your time while searching through the materials. Talk to other people working there. These work sites are dynamic and alive and exciting.
- Embrace the fellowship in your fellowship! Think of time at the archive as professionalization through sociability. Learn how to talk about your work in a way that excites other people who are not necessarily in your field.
How to manage the notes and pictures you gather (Dan White)
- Approach your note-taking systematically; essentially what you’re doing is amassing a body of notes from which, at a later point, you are going to produce scholarship. The more clearly and obviously you can organize and tag what you gather, the more you’ll thank yourself later. You’ll likely develop a system that’s unique to you, but as you do, imagine how your future self will be using your notes. You want your notes to help you create ideas for scholarship.
- ALWAYS record full bibliographic information for every item you look at!!
- Have a system of naming your electronic files; long names are useful and perfectly acceptable; include key info such as author surname, keywords from title, date, other keywords.
- Include cross-references for yourself, as you think about linkages you’re finding. Within the file of notes on a given item you can include items like “See ‘full name of file’ and ‘full name of file.'”
- In your file for each item, clearly differentiate your transcriptions from your meditations (perhaps with different-colored text?), but definitely include BOTH! Your epiphanies will be easily forgotten in the deluge of information you gather, so cherish each fleeting thought and keep a running narrative for yourself.
- Don’t forget that there are different kinds of notes; if an electronic copy of a given text is available, you can download it and (with proper software) take notes on the PDF. i
- On a shorter visit (one month or so), it’s probably best just to spend your time gathering as much info as you can. If you have a longer research period, you’ll probably want to work in some more formal writing/processing sessions for drafting the chapters or articles you’re working on. Keep in mind, though, that the research narrative you produce in your notes is part of that drafting process.
How to go about locating and working in private, lesser-known, and otherwise unconventional archives (Jill Heydt-Stevenson)
Occasionally you might find yourself searching for texts or objects that don’t end up in academic institutions. (Professor Heydt-Stevenson spent her summer researching collections of Paul and Virginia memorabilia, everything from handkerchiefs to cuckoo clocks, things that have mostly ended up in the hands of private enthusiasts who have all sorts of different reasons for collecting, and house their collections in their homes). So, how do you go about finding such repositories, and how can you prepare to use them?
- Search for clues about these kinds of collections on the internet, and definitely ask anyone you can think of who might know about anything useful. If you have friends locally, they can give you a spring board for people who won’t be on the internet. When trying to set up a visit don’t be afraid to use the phone! Keep in mind that some private collectors are older, and may hail from an era before email was so prevalent, or may live in the countryside with spotty internet access.
- Be prepared for the personalness of the research, and of your interactions with the collectors and their space. Keep in mind that you may be in someone’s home, going through their prized possessions, and your people skills will be very important.
- Be prepared for a huge difference between what the private collector does, versus an institution. What matters to them may not be what matters to you, and you must respect this. There will likely be no catalog, and little recorded information or analysis for each object. You will also likely not have a lot of time with the collection. These are huge challenges for a scholar.
- Bring notepaper as well as a computer to take notes in this house. There may be no wifi.
- Have a really good camera on you – not an iPhone camera. Take lots of photos!
- Be sure to ask the curator and owner if they want to be cited. Some do, and others feel intensely protective of their collections and do NOT want publicity.
- Be prepared to see one thing, or 300 things, depending on the situation.
- Be prepared to do a ton of socializing and talking, like a job interview. The curators will likely be thrilled that someone is interested in their collections, and will want to know all about what you’re planning to say about them. All this talking will take up some of your research time, but be gracious and keep in mind that it will likely enable you to do more research with the collection in the future.
Happy researching, everyone! And if you want more information, be sure to check out our collection of posts on Libraries & Archives. (You can access this from the drop-down menu for “Categories” on the right side of the page).