The Big Dig

Today I’m working at the Rare Books and Manuscripts division of the New York Public Library.

The Stephen A. Shwarzman building looks like a piece of Hogwarts right in the heart of New York City.

The building is open to the public most days during reasonably convenient hours.

I can’t believe I’ve lived most of my life in New York and never until today been into the library building.

I also can’t believe that I’m working in a private section of a public building which requires a special appointment, special passwords, and special knowledge of the interior workings of the system to access. When I leave the reading room to grab a drink of water or take a break, I have to walk across a beautiful rotunda filled with works of art that defy description and many gaping tourists taking pictures of them. When I return to the reading room, I have to go down back alley corridors, ring a special bell, and get a wave-in from one of the archivists because “she’s with us”.

Last night, while on the phone with my best beloved, I actually used the phrase “I’m in the

Hogwarts, I tell you

Hogwarts, I tell you

field…”. This makes me think of Indiana Jonesing my way through temples filled with traps and pitfalls all to find the Golden Idol of Treasure sitting atop some elaborate dais. This metaphor seems reasonably accurate to what I’m actually doing at the moment so I think that I’ll leave it that way. In case you get bored, just imagine me with my bullwhip and fabulous hat swinging my way through Times Square shouting “It belongs in a museum!”.

…you really won’t be so very far off from the truth.

….and now back to the big dig.

Scope

One of the problems of archival research is scope.

So you have a project. The project is interesting. The project involves a lot of dates, figures, places, etc. You do a search of an archive’s holdings on these various keywords and come up with a handful of findings that look like they may be pertinent. On paper, looking at this handful is totally doable within your allotted time frame.

But then you arrive at the archive and find out that one line of innocuous catalogue entry is actually representative of a collection which spans boxes and boxes of items; some of them large, some of them small, some of them will require a simple glance and reference picture, some will require careful reading. The collection is catalogued in a finding aid which, in itself, is approximately book-length and has entries for each individual item but those entries consist of a perfunctory three-word description which might possibly relate to your research or it could be a wild goose chase down a rabbit hole of really interesting stuff.

Me and honest Abe on the steps of NY Historical Society

Me and honest Abe on the steps of NY Historical Society

That’s the real problem: all the things that you could ask the archivist to pull are, in their own right, really interesting. They might be old, they might be antique, they might be related to whatever it is that you’re doing in a way that is so tangential that it might not even matter in the long-run but, being a thorough researcher, you have to document these findings and at least do enough looking-into that you can claim due diligence. So the one line of catalogue entry suddenly consumes hours (if not days) of your archive time and, in the words of Indie, “X” never marks the spot. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent following leads just to say that I’ve mapped the terrain.

This week, I’ve devoted attention to looking at materials that are probably not related enough to my dissertation to matter, but hat I had to look into anyway to rule out their collections from the greater body of work which might matter. The research treasure hunt is always fruitful in that you are constantly handling interesting things. This week alone, I found myself pawing through a batch of Edwin Booth’s cancelled checks, and a folder full of locks of hair given to him by various groupies, fan-girls, and sweethearts throughout the years (like I said…. REALLY INTERESTING STUFF but how are these things related to performances of Hamlet and Julius Caesar in the nineteenth century?).

I’ve also been pointed in the direction of collections that will require a great deal of time to sift through by archivists whose job it is to help researchers like me find things they’re looking for. These archivists know their stuff and the things they pointed me at are probably extremely fruitful. But do I really have time to read the personal correspondence of several prominent families spanning the course of about a hundred years in hopes that they will turn up details of the five performances I’m looking at?

Oh, yes, there are ways to narrow the field. In the instance of personal correspondence, I certainly have some target date ranges that I could look at. But I definitely didn’t allot time to look at these things (at least during this research trip) so do I have that time to do it? And can any of these things be found digitally so that I don’t waste precious time in a reading room looking at things that I could be looking at when I get home?

This research adventure has so far been extremely fruitful. So fruitful, in fact, that I’m beginning to worry about having enough time to look at everything I want to see (despite the fact that I have four more weeks in which to do it). I have begun to strategically rule out things that perhaps don’t need my attention (do I really need to see another portrait of Edwin Booth or yet another copy of John Wilkes Booth’s Carte De Visite upon which they based the picture displayed upon his “Wanted” poster after he shot the president?). I have also begun to prioritize items which are pertinent to sections of my diss for which I have fewer options for primary documentation (just you try finding materials relating to African American Actors in 1820).

I’ve also tried to start pacing myself; it would be really easy to burn too hot too fast on this. Brain work is taxing and I find that I come home simply exhausted at the end of the day (never mind the entirely new and exciting running possibilities that Riverside and Central Parks have opened up to me and I’ve taken perhaps too much advantage of). I also find that I’m really excited for more; that I’m doing exactly the work I hoped to do; and that I fight back imposter syndrome with every day that I walk into that reading room like I know what I’m doing.

….even if I only kinda know what I’m doing and a lot of this is figure it out on the fly. Hey, we’ve all gotta start somewhere!

A New York Minute

There really is nothing quite like being home.

It’s been many a year since I’ve spent any significant time in New York. Twenty four hours have been enough to put a smile on my face at the most mundane of things: bumping into tourists in Times Square on my way to an important dinner meeting, correcting tourists’ directions when they are completely lost because they’re one street south of where they think they are, iced coffee that doesn’t taste like it comes from a franchise (sorry, Dunks, you’ve got nothin’ on NY), random iced hot chocolates from Jacques Torres on my way from one archive to another.

Oh and the archives! This morning I spent some time at the beautiful reading room of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New York Historical Society. Big, airy, lofty, and just covered floor to ceiling in art, this was such a glorious place to weather the stormy New York morning. When my eyes got bleary and I simply couldn’t look at any more advertising pamphlets, I took a walk over to the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public library to check out their card catalogue and begin to page my requests.

Museum of Natural History from my Walk-By this morning.

Museum of Natural History from my Walk-By this morning.

So far, I’ve found a lot of things that will be useful, and several dead ends. Dead ends are actually a huge relief because they mean that I don’t need to continue a line of inquiry. Turning up stones is sometimes hard work and if you find too many salamanders, your menagerie overflows. This morning was so fruitful that I was beginning to worry about the carry capacity of my tanks. This afternoon has definitely been an exercise in page the material, read the material, be glad that you’re a thorough researcher and forget the material.

In between, I’ve scoped some plays I want to see (In addition to the requisite Shakespeare in the Park and Sleep No More viewings, I think a trip to Newsies is in my near future… especially because it’s set to close in August), taken a run down Riverside park, had a real NY bartender make my real NY cocktail without giving me funny looks about how oddly specific I was being in terms of my instructions, and eaten food that I had never even heard of before it was on my plate.

Again, this is only day one of a five-week trip. I’m happy to be home, and excited for my continued New York adventures (including the consumption of bagels…. Though I can’t do it today because I’ve already blown my frivolous calorie expenditure with aforementioned frozen hot chocolate concoction).

Also: for the record, when you’re away from home long enough even its quirks that drove you nuts when you lived there become endearing. I’ve had to dodge a serious of pretty serious rainstorms with strategic application of libraries and bars for the so-far duration of my stay and haven’t thought a bad thought about it yet other than, “Oh, you New York!”

Yup. I was fiending for some Billy Joel and water with a bit too much fluoride to be well and truly practical.

And now, I think they’ve paged my materials. Back to work.

Type A Problems

One of the best things that I do for myself is take notes.

Okay, this might seem self-explanatory, but frequent and persistent application of the basics can really get you through research’s tough problems.

Of course I take notes when I’m reading. How can you read something that you hope to retain and not take notes? In fact, I often read things so quickly that I will forget I have read them unless my notes are copious, well-organized, and well-labeled. Since the dissertation is… you know… a BIG GIANT RESEARCH PROJECT REQUIRING A LOT OF RESEARCH, I’ve extended this one step further.

I’ve started taking notes on my notes.

Yup, that’s right, I’ve gone one more giant leap down the type-A rabbit hole. In science, being able to reproduce your results is extremely important. As such, scientists copiously document (and even publish) their research processes. This is one thing that I think we in the humanities can attempt to duplicate. The research process needs to be something that you can map, at least for yourself. I need to know where I have been in order to sustain where I am going and not just trace and re-trace the same old habitrails day in and day out.

So I started a research journal. I have started to record which databases I query on a given day, the search terms I use, and hyperlink any findings. I note what was useful, what perhaps was less so, and any special considerations I will have to make in the future. At the end of the day, I leave myself ideas about where I want to go next. This makes re-immersing in deep research much easier; I no longer have to spend time looking for my train of thought because it’s right there on paper. In the long run, I feel that this will also prevent gigantic duplications in effort. “I forget, did I check this particular obscure thing? Oh well, better check it again just to be sure.” In essence, I am mapping for myself the territory that I trod in an effort to help myself remember exactly what’s going into this giant project.

In other news, I leave for New York in six days and counting. This time next week, I will have already had my first series of meeting in my five-week journey to enlightenment.

I’m still trying to figure out what to pack, but at least 95% of my archive appointments are taken care of….

A Bushel of Books

For the record, two weeks is not a long time at all.

When July happened (yes, it’s July now, can you even believe it?) I began to understand that this New York trip was really right around the corner. Now, I’m only a week and a half away from bidding my lovely, airy, light apartment a fond “see you later” and heading to the Big Apple, my home, for a full month.

This has meant that I’ve been struggling to get things together here so that they won’t be left undone when I return in August. At that point, I’ll only have two weeks with which to prepare for the coming of the semester and the last thing I’ll need is to have the apartment in such a place as to be uncomfortably unfinished.

So yesterday, in an effort to get the place to where it needs to be, I organized my books.

While I had previously shelved all of my volumes, they had been shelved only in the order of how I pulled them out of boxes. Organization is just one of those things in a move that has to be left for later. There’s almost no way to organize finer than broad strokes the mass amounts of box-pulling you do when unpacking your stuff. What this means is that, while I had access to my books (technically), there was no way I could actually find any of them.

Just you try to organize a massive and eclectic body of work such as that which currently occupies my shelves.

My library all cozily settled in.

My library all cozily settled in.

I’ve been tempted, over the years, to convert to the Library of Congress system and let the greater organization of librarians tell me where I should be putting things rather than figure it out on my own. This time, I opted for my generally unconventional method: Literature (fiction) in one section (this time not subdivided by “things I read for leisure” and “things I read because they’re part of the literary canon” but rather simply alphabetized by author’s last name), reference books in another section (let me tell you how many dictionaries I own… a lot), my collection of Shakespeare’s complete works subdivided by “Complete Works” and “Individual Plays” then alphabetized by name of work, theatre reference books in their own section, theatre theory books in their own section, plays alphabetized by name of playwright, and a separate shelf for my foray into Irish Studies.

The important part is to batch intuitively. If I think of a text, I need to know where to go to find it without thinking too hard about it. Alternately, it needs to be amongst texts of a similar type so that, if I can’t find it, I can look at my shelf and know where I need to go that it might be hiding amongst its “people”. The whole affair also involves the juggling of shelf size; my shelves, while standard length, vary in height. My books also vary in height and that variance cannot be counted upon to be uniform across categories. So what to do with books that don’t belong alphabetically in a certain place, but simply won’t fit anywhere else?

As you can see, the entire mess is a jigsaw puzzle that I am more than happy doesn’t need to be addressed more than once every few years. I’m also happy that my books are finally somewhere that is home, even if I won’t be here to look after them for a little while.

And now, it’s back to archive prep and finding aids for me.

Into the Fire… Kinda

So the verdict? I’m a beast and I love challenging physical obstacles (especially amongst supportive and lovely people). The Spartan Sprint was an incredible experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. In fact, I’m now looking into longer races, other 5Ks, and thinking about how far I really want to go with this. I’m reasonably sure that a full marathon is too much for me, but there may be a half in my future. Way in my future. Like a few years in my future. I’m all registered to go for the Zombie Run Black Ops in Boston this year (nighttime 5K/obstacle course complete with zombies who try to eat you), and I’ll be on the prowl for some fun-looking 10Ks in my near future.

I’ve been an avid user of the Zombies, Run! App and 5K trainer (which helped get me into shape for Spartan). It’s a great way to keep yourself engaged and occupied while you’re out for a run. I had tried C25K programs before and all of them lacked a bit of zazzle for me; but this one is just the right combination of stuff to do and encouragement. And, really, who doesn’t like outrunning zombies?

So now that I’ve hurtled the obstacles of June, it’s time to go into deep preparation mode for my research trip. This is particularly difficult when I’m trying to keep my library checkouts at a minimum (since I’ve moved further away from campus than I used to be, and most check-outs would come due while I’m away, it just seems like a good idea to try and go fully digital or from-my-own library until my return from New York).

apparently kissing at the finish line is a Spartan tradition.

apparently kissing at the finish line is a Spartan tradition; we were happy to oblige!

When I have library books, I am able to keep a very real and tangible grasp of my workload. Since I can physically manipulate stacks of books to represent what I am doing, have done, and will do soon, I can create a great set of cues for myself and my kinesthetic learner ways. I’ve managed to come up with systems involving the physical manipulation of books that keep me engaged with my research, and from feeling like I’m lost or don’t know what to do next (or even what needs to be done). Since the move, I’ve been completely disoriented from this method as well as from my usual work patterns. My office situation is completely changed. My desk set-up is completely different. My books aren’t even rearranged so that I can find things if I need them (at the moment, that’s not as big of a deal as it might seem since I’m trying to go digital for 90% of the work I need to do in the short-term).

So it’s a new challenge to figure out how to work in a way that doesn’t involve my book-stacks. Hopefully, it’s one that I’ll resolve before I leave for New York…

Just keep plugging; happy Monday!

Preparing for Liftoff

Having just moved and preparing for my first ever 5K (The Spartan Sprint happening… eek! Tomorrow!), for my next trick, I’m preparing for a one-month research tour of New York archives in an effort to assemble the primary research phase of my dissertation.

This involves examining archive inventories, poring over finding aids, considering what might be available to me digitally in Boston, scheduling where I will be when, contacting archivists, understanding library policies and hours, and assembling lists upon lists of what I will be doing where and when.

It’s a lot to organize, but it’s really exciting.

Just today, I happened across a source which listed a primary text available to me at one of my target archives. The source was written in the early 1920s. The primary text is from 1825. My job is REALLY REALLY COOL.

Archives have a lot of rules; mostly surrounding what you can bring in (generally just a pencil and your laptop) and how you can document your findings. It’s important to understand these rules before you arrive and to respect them at the individual institutions. It’s also important to consider how they might change the way you research. Often, I will take pictures of a document for reference. Some archives allow this, some do not. Most archives do allow computers these days, but not all of them allow tablets or smart phones. That means I can’t auto-sync pictures and take notes on them in real time (like I can when I’m documenting using my phone), and it also means I have to dig my camera and camera cable out of its storage box. Archives are also temperature controlled and, especially during the summer, can be rather chilly when compared with the heat outside. Dressing appropriately for the archive is important, and when I think about what to pack I’m definitely thinking layers. Archives are generally very safe and friendly places if you approach with great respect and a solid understanding of what you’re looking for.

I’ve already expounded upon the infinite helpfulness of reference librarians and archivists. The world is truly a better place for having them. I am finding, now more than ever, that these people make my job so much easier. I have the utmost respect and deepest gratitude for the people who help me make appointments, find what I’m looking for, and answer my questions about policies and scheduling. Thank you, archivists. You are truly the super heroes of academic research.

I’m also doing this prep while trying my darndest not to take home any new library books. The last thing I need is something coming due while I’m away and, as a result, having to try and explain my library book filing system (otherwise known as the “book fort mess”) to my long-suffering boyfriend and talk him through where to find the one book in a stack of 87 that needs to be returned TOMORROW or it will start incurring fines.

So it’s a challenge; but it’s a fun challenge. It’s definitely one that I’m taking slowly at first while I figure out how best to work things. I’m already implementing some systems and we’ll see if they pay off.

For now, I’m off to read one last book for the week then head out bright and early tomorrow on my SPARTAN ADVENTURE. I’ll catch you on the other side!

Pano of the new office space.  Isn't it lovely?

Pano of the new office space. Isn’t it lovely?

A Room of One’s Own

We moved on Friday.

Which really meant that we did a couple loads in the car on Friday and tirelessly dragged seemingly endless amounts of boxes up the stairs into our new digs, piled them somewhere that seemed “out of the way”, and made sure the internet was working. On Saturday, we handed the furniture over to professional movers and followed in their wake as we attempted to maintain some sense of order (it didn’t really work, though the movers were AWESOME). I spent the rest of the weekend and the beginning of this week trying to find my sanity and unpack as much as I could.

Sitting in a very pretty library we found the other week (Topsfield Public, for those who care)

Sitting in a very pretty library we found the other week (Topsfield Public, for those who care)

Today, for the first time since last week when I had to start getting serious about putting EVERY LITTLE THING away in a box, I am working. At my own desk. In my own apartment.

My books are haphazardly thrown upon shelves with no order to them (I’ll pull them all down later and organize as soon as I have a moment), but they’re all OUT OF BOXES!

My desk is mostly assembled, and I even installed my track lighting so that my office will be bright and cheery no matter what time of the day or night the muse strikes.

My bedroom is starting to look like a bedroom and not a conglomerate of boxes and garbage bags.

We’re not going to talk about the kitchen and/or closets because those won’t be done for a while. The kitchen is small and so requires a great deal of organizational thinking, something I am notoriously bad at when it comes to small objects and not tasks, so it’s waiting for my best beloved to have a go at putting things together in a way that makes sense. The closets will require some furniture/additions that we’re going to have to wait on until we can fit them into the budget. Since most of the things that we need accessible are, for the moment, at least findable if not convenient, this has been back-burnered until we can get the necessities taken care of.

I’m extremely happy with the way the place is shaping up. I have direly missed central air and I am thoroughly enjoying man’s triumph over nature in the form of temperature control.

I’m also extremely happy with my new workspace. It’s big, open, lots of natural light, has a pretty tree in front of its large window, and not so slowly is starting to feel like mine.

So here’s to a new start; a place to work; and bookshelves that (someday) will be organized in a way that I can find my books once more (honestly for the moment I’m just SO happy to have them accessible and no longer in boxes that it almost doesn’t matter that they’re not organized by author/subject yet… almost).

Unleashing the Crackin’

The weather here has FINALLY gotten nice on a consistent basis, which means that in spite of the move I’ve been trying extra hard to get out and enjoy the sun (you know, while it lasts and it’s not so hot that I think my face is melting off).

For most people, “getting out to enjoy the weather” might mean a walk, a picnic, a round of Frisbee with friends in the park… while I enjoy most of these things (except for Frisbee… what is even the point of Frisbee? Frisbees were like the thing man made to prove that other men were dumb because they could never get the darn thing to fly much less fly in the direction they wanted it to… not that I’m bitter about a piece of plastic or anything), the nice weather more means that I get to break out my toys on a consistent basis.

I’ve already touted the importance of lateral thinking and study breaks that encourage physical activity. When I was studying for my German exam, I taught myself to play the ukulele during study breaks because it was the only thing that would reset my brain for MORE FLASHCARDS when I felt that gray matter was going to start leaking out of my ear any minute. Also, since I’m a pretty awful guitar player (self-taught during high school… I can eke out about four chords on a good day), I figured I’d be a passable ukulele player (so far, this theory has proven to be true).

When I was studying for my comps last summer, I opted for something a little more fighty and a little less musical. My sister and her now-husband are pretty much experts in the art of bullwhip cracking and have shown me a few things over the years. With their help, and the assistance of several youtube videos, I managed to coerce my body into learning the finesse and art of the bullwhip.

First things first: I would never advocate playing with weapons

This is my object lesson about why eye protection is important

This is my object lesson about why eye protection is important

without careful professional supervision. This is PARTICULARLY true when you’re dealing with projectiles, or weapons that are fluid/non rigid. Swords are much easier to control than bullwhips. If you want to take up a dangerous hobby, try swords first. You’re much less likely to hurt yourself. In other words: don’t try this at home unless you understand that playing with any weapon involves an innate risk, and that your risk is much greater if you lack proper supervision and understanding of said weapon.

I’ve cracked myself several times over the course of learning the bullwhip and don’t foresee this stopping anytime in the near future. Understanding how to control a six-foot length of kangaroo hide moving faster than the speed of sound has a definite learning curve. Always wear eye protection, and be prepared that you’re going to get yourself good probably sooner rather than later and probably more than once.

If you encounter people cracking in public parks, here are a few good rules of thumb: don’t sneak up close to them while they are practicing. If you’re interested and would like to ask questions, chances are we’re used to hearing those questions and would be happy to answer them. Wait patiently at a healthy distance (at least 15 feet; if you feel “unsafe” then you are probably in the danger zone), and approach respectfully (not because we are innately violent people, but because wouldn’t you like people to be nice to you if they wanted to know things about your hobbies?). While the cracker is (we hope) HIGHLY aware of people in her zone, do keep an eye on your kids. Most children have a healthy self-preservation instinct, but you never know when someone is going to fail a Darwin check. Honestly, when I practice in public, I try to find a place far away from small children (as a safety precaution, but also because I can’t always give my “don’t try this at home” speech to passers-by and the last thing I want is for a child to injure itself trying to be as cool as Indiana Jones). This is not always possible. Crackers need grass (concrete or stone chews up whips and they are investments; especially leather ones), we need open spaces away from low-hanging trees or branches, and we need a place away from people. If I can find all of these things AND no four-footers in sight, I’ll always opt for that. But if my only choice is to be somewhere within eyesight of a family with children, there’s not much I can do about it.

Really, all you need to do is be aware that someone is practicing a martial art nearby. So long as you keep yourself away from the hurty end of the whip, you’ll be fine. And you’ll probably get a neat show to boot; whippersnappers are nothing but show-people. You don’t really take up a hobby like the bullwhip and not expect to get stared at a lot.

Happy cracking!

You Betta Werk

I go through cycles with my research.

At this point, I can pretty accurately predict the cycles (at least that they will happen and in what general order they will occur). This was driven home by a phone call I made yesterday to my always-amazing boyfriend.

I’ve been feeling kind of lost in the dissertation project. This is certainly not helped by the fact that I’ve had to return most of my library books to prepare for the move, nothing is in the place where I expect it to be because of the move, and I’m experiencing no small amount of anxiety about the move. Basically: move move move, move move, hard to work

Even my plants are getting ready for the big move.

Even my plants are getting ready for the big move.

because move.

This, coupled with being away from my research for some time due to be a Jolly Good Fellow with the GIFT program, send me on the inevitable downward spiral of existential crisis.

“What am I doing? Why am I even doing this? What am I looking for? Why does any of this matter?”

…this happens a lot. At least to me. I find scholarship to be very difficult sometimes, especially something as abstract seeming as theatre history. It’s hard to touch the ground when your work is mostly ephemeral.

I was explaining this to said boyfriend the other day and trying to keep myself from sounding teary and pathetic over the phone. He was trying to keep himself from laughing. Finally I worked up the nerve to ask him why.

“You said this was going to happen. In fact, you used these exact words to describe the inevitability of this happening in the future the other week when you were all excited about your work.”

“…well…. But… I just don’t know what to DO!”

“You said you just have to keep working.”

I sighed. “But I don’t know how to keep working because I don’t know where any of my work is right now because it’s all returned to the library or back in boxes and and… past me just doesn’t understand!”

…just keep working. Thanks, past me. Great advice.

So I’ve been climbing back on the horse slowly trying to find my place in the saddle again. It’s been tough, but I’m getting there. There are definitely things on my to-do list that make use of the plethora of digital technologies at my disposal (thank you, greater realm of library science, for digitizing major texts… please continue to do so because it really does make research SO much easier). But hard is hard and daunting is daunting; and dissertations are nothing but a combination of both.