Back in the Saddle

Being back home from the big dig means a lot of things:

1)   I am back at my desk! I love my desk. I missed my desk. I can’t believe how quickly I became accustomed to my current work set-up, but I simply wouldn’t want it any other way and I so dearly missed having it. I missed the sunlight; I missed my giant window; I missed the comfy chair; I missed my dual monitor and raised laptop setup; I missed my external keyboard and mouse; I missed my giant external hard drive; and I missed not having to move everything around on a whim. So glad to be

In the course of my unpacking, this happened.  Because for me this is normal.

In the course of my unpacking, this happened. Because for me this is normal.

back sitting in one location when I’m working!

2)   Man oh man do I have so many e-mails to answer. I’m about caught up on all the things now; but it was dicey there for a few days. It’s incredible the amount of backlog you can build up, even when working triage between archive trips.

 3)   I might have gone a little theatre-nutty and accepted about a half dozen reviews in my first two days being back. This week I’ll be reviewing one show; next week I’ll be reviewing a different show and seeing a third show just for the sake of seeing theater… and I have a few more on the horizon coming up. I’m so happy that it’s theatre season again; and I’m so stoked to be back in the reviewers’ saddle (though I will admit, it was nice to see a show or two without a notebook in my hand while I was in New York!).

4)   I have so many pre-semester errands to accomplish. Some of them are amusing. Some of them are not. Luckily I timed my return such that I’d have a few precious days on campus before the hoards descend in multitudes. Picking up a parking pass for the semester is SO much easier when you can sneak in and out without anyone else being there. By the time the undergrads arrive back on campus, lines at campus security wind up being out the door and around the block (no joke) and I’m simply too ridiculously busy to spend two hours waiting for the privilege to hand them my money. Also: when campus is empty, I can use the quad for whip practice. Not so much once everyone returns from summer break.

5)   I have once more managed to fill this semester with exciting things. I’m TAing one class in the department and teaching a second. I am teaching my stage combat class again to the kids at Charlestown, and teaching my OSHER class again to my delightful continuing adult ed. students. I’m also fight directing at least two projects (with more on the horizon), finishing edits on a chapter for publication, continuing my work as an independent contract writer, and continuing my work with the Folger. Oh and writing a dissertation. And that’s just what I’m doing on the work front… My personal projects and leisure activities continue at a similar pace.

6)   Now I have to set order to the INSANE amount of stuff I documented over the

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I'm missing this view....

Of course, being back in Mass does mean I’m missing this view….

course of five weeks at some of the biggest archives in the country. I’m making progress, and the trip definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things that I really needed to consider over the course of this dissertation process. Also: it was fun to paw through archival material (if a bit frustrating sometimes).

7)   Back to running here means back to hill training. New York is very flat…. My neighborhood not so much. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess?

 Back to the grind!

Adventures in Archives

In the last week I have managed to:

Find items listed in the card catalogue that it took three archivists and a reference librarian to figure out what these items might be, and that the library probably doesn’t have what I’m looking for anymore (though they obviously did at one point) but if these items were still, somehow, in the collection how I could fill out a call slip to maybe see what I wanted to see.

2014-07-22 10.41.32

Shot I took on my way to NY Municipal yesterday. Ain’t she a beaut’?

Fill out the call slip in the way the librarian told me to.  It did not get me my broadside, but it did get me a collection of clippings that were mildly useful so I’ll call that particular adventure a wash.

Find an item listed in the card catalogue which, when delivered to the desk, was in such fragile condition that I was not allowed to take the item from the desk but rather had to make a special appointment with a special archivist so that she could turn pages for me.

Find a series of items that was collected in so many different forms that the archivists had to bring me no less than three book cradles and two sets of book weights to figure out how I could view them safely without damaging or putting stress on the items.  These items, by the by, were included in a series of circus ephemera which also included all kinds of broadsides, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and crumbling papers arrayed in scrapbooks in what I’m certain made sense at the time they were put together but now, one hundred and fifty years later, is the most convoluted organization possible.

Find an envelope containing locks of hair and adoring notes from Edwin Booth’s groupies.  Apparently fan-girling is not a modern invention and, in the nineteenth century, was way creepier than it is today.

Procure and subsequently lose approximately fifteen pencils.

Increase my average daily physical activity by approximately 200%.  This is not hyperbole; my step tracker counted.

Make and cancel and re-make so many plans that I’m hoping my calendar remembers where and when I’m supposed to be at a given time because I certainly don’t.

Attain and attend appointments at all of my target archives and sift through so much material that I’m going to be reeling for a while.

And now, they’ve paged my next batch.  Catch you later!

Revenge of the Microfiche

Over the course of the past two days, I have spent a grand total of 3.5 hours sitting in the library with a microfiche machine scanning a 1963 dissertation to PDF so that I could take a copy home with me and peruse it at my leisure rather than be bound by the in-library usage of a microfilm reader.

If you’ve never scanned microfilm, you can consider yourself a happier person for it.  It entails sitting at a dimly-lit workstation with machines that haven’t been updated in the last fifteen years (and can’t be since the drivers for the microfiche readers are no longer made

My work area at the library today

My work area at the library today

to accommodate updated windows systems… also a microfiche reader will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand dollars and that’s the cheap model… for technology that hasn’t been updated since the eighties and actually can’t be updated anymore).  You line up your shot, click at least three times, then wait twenty seconds for the reader to scan the page.  You hope that the page scans with an appropriate brightness setting and, if it does, you move on to the next page.  Advancing the film is an entirely manual process.  There’s no automating it.

The book that I scanned was 250 pages worth of frames.

So you sit, advance, click click click, wait… sit, advance, click click click, wait… You can perhaps hope to do some bits of work in the interim between clicks (if you have work that you don’t need to think about constantly).  I used the opportunity to catch up on my grade-book keeping… for the first hour at least.  Essentially, once you’re done, you now have a pile of reading to do and your eyes are glazed over from a marathon of fluorescence.

I couldn’t help but think that it would be reason enough to become a rock star academic just so I could have someone else be responsible for this kind of menial task for me.  At the same time, there is something romantic about scanning your own microfilm.

Oh, did I mention that the students behind the reference desk often know nothing about the readers and so, if there’s a problem that you can’t fix yourself, you have to wait for someone from IT to show up?  Because those readers are probably older than the student workers.  I was advised by the circ desk worker that I was the first person he had ever encountered who needed to know where the readers lived.  That’ll give you hope for the researchers of tomorrow.

Living life in twenty second intervals is extremely disorienting.  The day slips by and you haven’t even noticed.  It made me wonder what other things would look like if performed in twenty second clips.

Cooking?  Baking?  The greatest works of literature?  Acting?  Dancing?  Twenty seconds is all you get… then you pause to re-align… then you get another twenty seconds.  Anyway, suffice to say that I got very little done today… and yesterday.  It feels, however, like I accomplished a few mammoth tasks.  And I guess that could be accurate(ish).  I did manage to fit some proof-reading, record-keeping, e-mail writing, twitter feeding, contract-writing, and internet-surfing in between those bits of film.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dissertation that’s old as sin to get through (this dude’s, not mine… mine is still in its infancy).  I also have two plays to review in two days (both Shakespeare-related – Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppets’ Midsummer Night’s Dream at ArtsEmerson tonight, then Vagabond Theatre Group’s Breaking the Shakespeare Code tomorrow).  If you need me, I’ll be buried under my job for a while.

Raiders of the Lost Archive

This week’s adventure was brought to you by the words “Police”, “Microfiche” and “archive”.

So…. Have you heard about occupy Harvard?

…yea neither had I until I wound up in the middle of it this week.

The Harvard Theatre Collection is the largest and oldest archive of its kind in the United States (debatably the world).  They have all kinds of crazy and wonderful things, and it’s where I’m doing the majority of my research for one of my projects this semester.  This last trip to the archive is probably my last before I start writing, but I needed to digitize some microfilm (I know, my life is so exciting).  So I went.

Well, much to my amazement, the campus was on lockdown.  Being a New Yorker, I turned to my “deal with authority figures” survival instincts and whipped out the photo ID most likely to work (my Harvard special borrowers card), took out my headphones, gave the guards my most unassuming smile, and wha-bam had access to the yard.  No big deal.

The yard was quiet and there was a tent city set up on the far end of it.  At this point, my mind leapt to the most likely possibility: that the Harvard students simply could no longer

you can't tell me that this wouldn't perk up any "occupy" movement

afford exorbitant Harvard dorming and thereby were forced to make a make-shift hooverville within the yard.  The police were there, obviously, to stop and wandering gypsies who may get ideas about joining said hooverville.  Unless the gypsies had valid Harvard IDs in which case they were welcome to set up their wagons and perform peacefully (if loudly) for the masses.

I mean, it was a little odd, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before.

What came next was even weirder.

So despite having the nicest reading room with matching oak bookcases that I have ever been in as well as the most fancy bathrooms (seriously… their bathrooms are nicer than most apartments I’ve lived in), Houghton Library’s microfiche reader is a piece of donkey dung.  I get the feeling that they got the one that kind-of worked and thereby couldn’t be thrown away but nobody really wanted in their library so they sent it to the corner of Houghton.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the Houghton people weren’t emphatic about requesting microfiche copies of volumes when possible.

A critical piece of my current research is on microfiche.  This was going to be an issue.

After seeing the oh-so-fancy office-paper-and-handwritten “broken” sign on the printer by the microfiche reader, I inquired about the possibility of printing from microfiche.  The archivist informed me that this process had to be taken care of in Lamont library, the next building over.  “Oh.”  I said, “So I fill out a request sheet and they send my materials there, I pick them up and deal with them?”

“No.”  She said, “You take them there yourself.”

What?  Wait… no… WHAT!?  Like… remove materials from the archive?  With my own two hands?

You have to understand.  Reading rooms at these places are probably the most secure rooms in the university.  They post guards at the door, you need special ID to get in, you can only take certain things into the reading room (at Harvard you may take: a notebook, a laptop (but not the case), pencils, and your digital camera (but not the case)), they have buzz-you-in-from-both-sides doors, and they search your stuff when you leave.  I was going to REMOVE MATERIAL FROM THIS PLACE?

“Yea.”  The archivist said.  “I mean… it’s only microfiche.”

I guess that brought a little perspective to what I was doing.  After all, microfiche is secondary material… not really of any value since it’s not original and requires special equipment to deal with…

Steeling my nerve, I accepted the forms informing all involved security guards that yes, I was authorized to carry around these two rolls of golden microfiche for the afternoon and no, I wasn’t stealing them.

Feeling like I was carrying a case full of jewels and a bomb simultaneously, I worked my way out of the reading room and to Lamont.

So…. Funny thing about microfiche… it’s not glamorous.  At all.  And it doesn’t really require special conditions to be stored.  As a result, it gets foisted to the least appealing section of the library.  At Harvard, it’s in a sub-basement with few lights and locked wire storage cages at the back.  When I arrived in the sub-basement, there was one other student there.  I was somewhat glad because it meant that I had someone to throw at the

...and there wasn't even a counter to hide under!

inevitable zombies or velociraptors which would attack me because I had managed to find my way into their lair.  This other researcher proved doubly unnerving because, after a brief tour around the place, I realized that he disappeared completely without making a sound.  Standing, now alone, in the flickering fluorescent tube lights, I realized that I had to get out of there.  Now.  What if the velociraptors were particularly hungry that day?  What if they just had a penchant for stealing precious microfiche?  Then I would be found out!  Booted!  Clearly I wasn’t really a member of the academy because I fell for the old “velociraptors in the basement steal your archival material” trick!

Thankfully, I realized fairly quickly that while the microfiche lived in the sub-basement, the microfiche scanners lived on the main floor of the building (one of the ones with oak bookcases, comfy chairs, and professional velociraptor handlers… I mean librarians).  I made my escape as quickly as I could, clutching the microfiche to my chest in an attempt to hide its token scent.

And actually, microfiche digitizing scanners are pretty nifty!  I had a grand old time using them, and managed to return the microfiche unscathed to the archives before they closed.

Oh and I saw some Tibetan monks trying to gain access to Harvard but being turned away

You can't make this stuff up, folks.

by the police on my way out.  Maybe that’s why the velociraptors weren’t in the sub-basement… they were otherwise employed at the gates of Harvard keeping the gypsies and Tibetan monks from gaining access to the sacred yard.

“It doth forget to do the thing it should”

This week’s been hot for my research.

The buzz of being onto something is really incomparable.  There’s a nervousness compounded with an anticipation and a rush of adrenaline when you realize that you’ve found some topic that other people don’t seem to be talking about.  Then there’s this fear that well, maybe they’re not talking about it because it’s SO OBVIOUSLY OBVIOUS and EVERYBODY knows that and you’re a complete idiot for even thinking that there may be some unanswered question as to what you’re working on.

I’m stuck right now in a valley of no return.  I can’t go back because, well, I’m walking an (as far as I can tell) unforged path, but at the same time I’m wondering how very far I’ll be able to leapfrog down this path and where it may take me.  I have some vague notions, some of them more exciting than others, but in my experience with research (as with life) you never really know until you get there.

This week I was trying to articulate said feeling to a colleague of mine.  We were having the

oh hello, Hogwarts, I didn't realize that you were in Boston! (courtyard at the BPL)

inevitable “where are you with your projects?” moot during a trip to the Boston Public Library (BEAUTIFUL and WONDERFUL by the by, and totally worth checking out if you like books or pretty architecture or reading books while surrounded by pretty architecture).  I mentioned that I had found something… something that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of.  Something that no one else seems to have worked on yet.  Something that I was getting somewhere with.

And he asked me the dreaded question which sent me into a Southward tailspin.  “Is it important?”

I blinked at him a few times, taken aback by the question.  It is important?  Oh the implications of this!  First off, I couldn’t understand how I had gotten so far stuck down the hole of research that I had lost track of the outside world.  How could I lose sight of some bigger picture?  How could I be so focused on such small details that I failed to see the whole?  Of course no one’s written about it, it just may not be all that important!

Then I found myself in this semantic existential crisis questioning everything I knew.  What

Is this the end of zombie Shakespeare?

was “important”?  How do you define “important”?  I mean, forchrisakes, we spend our days reading and writing about theatre.  Theatre never made dinner.  Theatre doesn’t even really make money.  And what’s worse, most of us spend more of our time talking about theatre rather than making theatre these days.  We’re intellectual hacks.  In the eventuality of zombie holocaust, we’re pretty much the top of the list of “zombie bait” because we have nothing to add to the post-apocalyptic human existence and we don’t even have any practical skills.  So really, “important”?  How can anything we do (or fail to do) really and truly be “important”?

Then I began to come up with excuses to justify my research.  It has to do with Shakespeare and Shakespeare is obviously important!  Everyone knows Shakespeare!  Everyone loves Shakespeare!  He’s the most-quoted creator of literature the world-over!  Just about every nation has appropriated him as their own!  Without Shakespeare, the English language wouldn’t exist as we know it today, so clearly what I’m doing as a small subset of this gigantic whole is obviously extremely important.

Then I wondered why it even mattered.  This is a seminar paper for a research methodologies course.  More important than what I find is how I managed to find it.  How did I solve my problems along the way?  What tactics did I use to solve these problems?  If I make a breakthrough and manage to produce something landmark, that’s frosting on the cake (what’s a cake without frosting?  Maybe I should be making a landmark breakthrough… everyone will be disappointed if there’s a cake with no frosting…. Wait, hang on, maybe it’s angel food cake which does not require frosting to be good… I can live with that).

though apparently my man Will can handle the zombies for me.

So I answered the only way I knew how.  “I don’t know.”  It was truth.  Pure and simple.  At this stage of the game, my research could be anything.  The important thing is that it’s interesting, it’s engaging, it keeps me busy, and I’m not chasing my tail as I grind grind grind away.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the archive to do some more digging.  Maybe in a few

weeks I’ll get back to this question of importance.  For now, I’m glad to have had the reality check and I’m super glad that there are no zombies at my window.

>You Can’t Take it With You


This summer has been a touch busy for me.
I won’t bore you with all the personal details, but suffice to say what was looking like a long summer of nothing suddenly and magically turned into “oh god oh god where did I put my head, I think I left it at my other job.”
One of the three jobs I am working this summer is as an archival assistant.  Here is a classic example of being in the right place at the right time.  I am not an archivist.  I am not a library scientist.  I am an English major (so at least I know how to use a library) and I do work at a theatre.  When said theatre realized that it had an upcoming project which involved books, they looked at me and I said “sure, why not?”
For anyone who has some romanticized notion about archives, what they are, how they are useful and how they are made, you are only partially correct.  Yes, my job does involve a sort of Indiana Jones style treasure hunt through the bowels of the New Jersey Institute of Technology looking for material about, around or related to Jim Wise (google him, I dare you, there’s just about nothing on this guy… he wrote the mildly successful Off-Broadway spoof musical Dames at Sea and apparently was also heir to the Wise potato chip fortune… whoda thunk?).  My job also involves a lot of dust, heavy lifting, phone calls to random administrative offices in an attempt to be allowed access to material, fruitless google searches, unreturned e-mails, tail-chasing meetings and iced coffee. 
Here’s the bottom line.  My job is to take a roomful of random stuff which once belonged to this dead guy and make some sense of it.  We have little to no information on the dead guy, almost everyone who knew the dead guy is now either also dead or no longer working for the university, and the stuff is piled precariously in no particular order on an unfinished floor of a building somewhere on the university campus.  We are only half certain that this floor has air conditioning (if it does, the climate control is absolutely unreliable).
All I can say is the work may be boring, tedious and infuriating at some times, but it is also fascinating.
Like you, I had never really heard of this man before working on the project.  I had some idea that my theatre was named after him, I saw his picture hanging in the hallway, but I couldn’t have told you much more about him.  What perhaps is the most exciting piece about it is the knowledge that, at the end of this road, I may be a leading expert in the field of Jim Wise.  There is almost no web presence for the man, there certainly isn’t any academic or biographic material written upon him, these are things that we are creating as we go.  In the creation, we are educating ourselves.  Once we have the programs, sheet music, sets, props, video interviews, personal effects, and overall piles of junk catalogued, inventoried and understood to some level, we will know more about Jim Wise than perhaps anyone else still alive.
It almost makes me want to write a paper on him.  Almost.
And yet… I feel as though what we are doing is, in some ways, a violation.  I mean, really, would you want a random graduate student digging through the junk they pull out of your office after you die?  How about cataloguing that junk and setting it on display for the world to see?  What if we find something in that pile of stuff that we just don’t want to know?  Is it our responsibility to tell people, or to keep the secret secret and protect the integrity of the man who signed our paychecks before gracefully pushing up roses?  And if he were better known (or more consequential in the grand scheme of things), would these questions matter more or less?
I’ll let you know if and when this all becomes relevant.  For now, all I can say is: word to the wise (as per usual, pun thoroughly intended): if you don’t want aforementioned random graduate students making these decisions about your own personal items, don’t leave an endowment large enough for your own theatre to any university.  And especially don’t write any influential pieces of music, drama, art or scholarship.