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….

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?

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.

GIFT

This summer, I have the extraordinary privilege of being a Fellow with the GIFT program here at Tufts University. GIFT is a clever acronym for Graduate Institute For Teaching and it’s really an amazing program. Every summer, fellows are chosen from amongst Doctoral Candidates university-wide to participate in the institute. Seminars are held in various aspects of teaching and pedagogy and are conducted by top teachers from all of the disparate departments.

So far, the seminars have been delightful and extremely applicable to my job. I’m learning

A pano of my book fort that I took to show the other fellows what my workspace looks like

A pano of my book fort that I took to show the other fellows what my workspace looks like

a lot about teaching, and I’m learning a lot about being a graduate student.

You see, this is the first time that I’ve encountered other Tufts Doctoral Candidates in the wild. This is the first chance I’ve had to have close contact with a group of people so very like me, but also incredibly different. Lunchtime chats are dominated by discussing the similarities and differences in our fields, what Quals are like, what it means to work on a dissertation or culminating project, and what we expect to do when we grow up.

And the food. I have to say this about being a Fellow: in addition to being a really cool title (tee hee… I’m a “Fellow”), it also comes with certain expectations. You work hard, you make sure to represent your department in the best light that you can, and you try your hardest not to get fat. They’re feeding us really well at this program and it’s definitely been a source of mid-day delight and end-of-day regret.

In all seriousness, having somewhere to be every day first thing in the morning is a welcome change of pace. I wake up, I have coffee, I dress like I care what other people think of me. I’ve worn two blazers this week and four different pairs of shoes. The isolation of graduate study is a really crushing beast to deal with and my involvement with this program has been pivotal to understanding several concepts which, in theory, I knew but which, in practice, I had yet to truly uncover for myself. Impostor syndrome affects all of us. We all have trouble doing one thing or another and that doesn’t reflect our expertise as professional academics, just our growth as humans. There will always be a student who you don’t quite know how to reach, but with the right support system you can better enrich both her experience in the classroom and yours.

The program is a lot more intense than I was expecting it to be and I have found that I’m exhausted at the end of the day (and certainly now, at the end of the week, I’m dragging to get through the last tasks I need to accomplish before I can rest a bit this weekend). It has been so very worthwhile already, though, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the program has in store.

Also, you’ve never felt like you’re in an incredible discussion until you’ve been in a room full of budding experts in fields from Theatre History to Theoretical Physics. Just saying, we’re pretty smart.

Back with a Vengeance

Hello, everyone! I’m back from a lovely one-week vacation to the South of our great land where I was able to accomplish several things (not the least of which being visiting my lovely little sister, and gallivanting around her place of employment… Disney. Yes, I know,

While I was in Disney this might have happened....

While I was in Disney this might have happened….

life is hard when you’re a Rosvally).

Today, I was back in the saddle hitting the ground running. I’m honored to be a Fellow at the Tufts Graduate Institute For Teaching program this summer and, as such, am participating in twelve seminars designed to help improve my skills as a teacher. I’m learning a lot already (today was the first day) and am overjoyed to be meeting and interacting with other graduate students from (gasp) different departments. It’s nice to have somewhere to go first thing in the morning; this kind of structure really kicks off the day right and is something that I’ve been missing in recent semesters due to coursework having come to a close. Dissertation work can be extremely isolating, and this Institute is really the perfect combination of socialization, enrichment, professional development, and personal accountability for me at this point in my graduate career.

As part of seminar this morning, one of our glorious presenters gave us a sheet of quotations about war meant to spark conversation. None of them were accredited (in an effort not to bias us) but after the exercise was over, he went down the list and let us know where each had originated. I was perplexed when he reached one axiom that we’ve probably all heard before: “all is fair in love and war”. The presenter attributed it to Shakespeare and then admitted that it’s been said by people ad infinitum the world over since the dawn of time and moved on.

I was dubious about accrediting this quotation to my man Will because, first thing’s first, the syntax really doesn’t scream “Bard” to me. Secondly, and this is where things get hazy, I wasn’t recalling it from any of the plays off the top of my head (this is often a good source of information but not necessarily definitive; while I can probably quote more than is healthy for a human being, I’m not going to claim an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire canon…yet).

The attribution was really a minor point and I didn’t want to hang the class up with something completely tangential to what we were actually talking about. However, the factoid kept wheedling me after we left seminar (so much so that I was inclined to look it up on my own and determine where this famous phrase came from).

Sure enough, I was right. It’s not a Willism. The first round of answers I got were mixed; some attributing it to English novelist and playwright John Lyly and some to English novelist Francis Edward Smedley.

Further investigation proved that both of these answer are, after a fashion, correct. The Lyly derivation is actually a paraphrase of a line from Lyly’s 1579 novel, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. Lyly actually wrote: “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war” (you can see where the paraphrase is a bit more elegant for today’s syntax).

pretty flowering tree I found on campus today

pretty flowering tree I found on campus today

Which left the Smedley question. How did he get mixed up in this? I looked into things a bit more and discovered that, in fact, the first appearance of the quote as-is was in the 1850 novel Frank Fairleigh by Francis Edward Smedley (who apparently, in addition to one of the funniest names in literary history, also had a flare for the axiomatic).

Neither of these people are Shakespeare (though, funny enough, Lyly is noted for having written pretty copiously for the child companies, popular amongst upper class Elizabethan audiences and notorious for “stealing” audience members from the adult companies such as Will’s). So there you go! While it’s often a safe bet to attribution quotable quotes to Will, it’s never a sure-fire thing (as proven by this, your little bit of pop up dramaturgy for today). I hope that your week is off to an incredible start! Mine certainly is.

White Lies

As the weather gets nicer, it’s becoming more and more difficult to focus on the work I need to do rather than go outside and play all the time. This means that my running has definitely gotten some attention, but that I’ve had to get clever with how I get myself to my desk in the morning.

I was once given the advice that, whenever you’re feeling down about your work (and hey, it happens!), you should “eat dessert first”. Find what it is about the topic, the job, whatever it is you’re doing that drew you there in the first place. Some of what we do as academics is administrative red tape rigmarole, some of it is downright unpleasant, but there’s always going to be that shining kernel of things you love.

This week, it’s been about using that kernel to trick myself to my desk.

Due to the generosity of my home institution, I’ve been given the gift of research this summer. I’m enabled and empowered to visit New York for a full month to do dissertation research (which is vital because, you know, my dissertation is kind of all about New York). I’m so EXTREMELY excited for my trip for so many reasons (not the least of which being all the food from home that I miss so much up here in Boston). This means that I have to take some time before my trip to figure out what I’m actually going to look at at each of the various archives that I will be visiting.

Here's a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago.  For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Here’s a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago. For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Which basically means online shopping. I’ve spent no small amount of time this week (and will spend some more in weeks to come) browsing the catalogues of my target institutions for items that might have information which would help my project. Essentially, I get to sift through the holdings of these CRAZY LARGE PLACES in order to try and determine what small subset will be worth my while to look at.

This process is more complicated than you might think. The trouble is that library science, while certainly further along than it was when my grandparents were working on their dissertations (while I have used a card catalogue, it’s thankfully only a small subset of a specific corner of my research which requires such medieval measures), is still an imperfect science. But it’s not the field’s fault really; I mean how do you accurately catalogue boxes upon boxes of material in a way that is intuitive to the general researcher? Generally, the answer involves a complex series of sub-headings, and documents known as “finding aids” (slightly more detailed descriptions of what’s in a box than the collection’s title, but when I say “slightly” I often mean just that… most finding aids that come across my desk are one-line descriptions of date, persons involved (if it’s a letter then usually it’ll be the to/from), and maybe some brief description of places involved). These “finding aids” can be quite old and are generally in PDF form (and not even OCR PDF) which means that, rather than use a computer to look for the word/words you might need to key you in to items on this twelve-page list which might be useful, you have to sift through them using your own two eyes.

If this sounds like a special breed of torture, then you’re not entirely wrong. After about hour five of this, I tend to be too tired to continue without fear of missing something important. But the cool part is that you get little bursts of inspiration/encouragement along the way. Remember, you’re looking through these lists to find something related to your research. That means that the gems you find here will be the things that are the backbone of your project; one document could change the way we look at history! Every time I find something in one of these aids that might be useful to me, I get (at least a little bit) excited. What I’m looking at now will, when it’s in front of me, help to formulate the big ideas that I’m currently wrestling with and provide the documentation to support my arguments.

Also, handling stuff that’s easily five times your age never gets old.

So that’s been my method of tricking myself into productivity this week. Let’s see how long it holds up!

The First of the Last

Yesterday was the first of the last: the first last day of class for Spring 2014. My evening acting students gave their final scene presentations (though my afternoon Shakespeare students and my Tuesday evening fight students still have another week to go; so next week will officially be the end of teaching for Spring 2014).

A gratuitous shot of one of my bookshelves (Shakespeare... obviously) just 'cause

A gratuitous shot of one of my bookshelves (Shakespeare… obviously) just ’cause

The last day of class is always bittersweet for me. It’s exciting to see how far my students have come, and it’s definitely a downer that I won’t be seeing them on a regular basis anymore. It’s exhilarating to feel that I’ve made a difference in how they view themselves, theatre, or other people, and it’s jarring that I won’t be walking with them any further on their journey. I see my role in the classroom as a guide; I can show them the path but it’s always their choice whether or not to tread it. Now, they’re on their own to machete their way through their own wilderness. They’ll meet other guides along the way who will, hopefully, be able to keep them away from obvious pitfalls and point out the edible plants as opposed to the poisonous ones.

And sometimes, they’ll be on their own. I like to think that I’ve shown them a thing or two that will help when they find themselves treading the path solo. Maybe it’s how to start a fire, and maybe it’s how to make shelter from banana leaves. Maybe it’s something smaller like the best tree to sit under on a warm day. Whatever it is, I’m proud to have taken the journey with another stellar group of students this semester. Now to make my way back to the beginning to meet my next bunch.

It takes some time to navigate back to that starting place. You’ll get back faster on your own, but it won’t be as exhilarating. And you walk with the constant awareness that the landscape always shifts; the next time you take a group through there will be new challenges, new pitfalls, and new adventures to face together.

Next semester is going to be a very different beast from this semester. I won’t be teaching acting (that I know of… yet…), but I will definitely be TAing at least one class. I have another class on the “maybe” pile (still waiting to hear back about it), and there’s a pretty fair chance that I’ll be teaching at least one stage combat course. I’ll likely also be leading another Shakespeare discussion group (but again, this isn’t a sure things yet).

There’s nothing quite like the life of an adjunct to teach you to treasure what you’ve got when you’ve got it, because you never quite know when and where you’ll find it again.

In any case, I’ve still got a pile of grading to do. I guess that’s the other “bitter” in my “sweet”: paperwork and red tape are an ever-present force in academia.

Good luck with your finals, everyone (whether you’re taking them or giving them)!