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!

News from the Front

Random news from the front:

  1. For the love of all things holy, please don’t wear jeans conferencing. I’ve seen people do this from graduate students to faculty members and every time I see an offender, my blood boils.

Wearing jeans at a conference communicates that you don’t take the conference

sunrise over Nashville Saturday morning

seriously enough to dress professionally for it. The old axiom “dress for the job you would like to have” definitely applies. Would you wear jeans to a job interview?

I was networking every moment of every day in Nashville (including a clandestine encounter with a Yale reference librarian on the shuttle from my hotel to the airport). There was never a moment when I wasn’t, in some way, on display. You never know who you will meet or where you will meet them, and especially at a large conference where most of the participants are staying in your hotel, you want to make sure you look your best for any possible encounter.

So say it with me: I will not wear jeans at a conference.

  1. My book fort is up to 47 and counting. Of these 47, there are only six that I have not yet cracked. This means that, in addition to keeping up with my class reading, I have read all or most of 41 additional books since the end of September. No wonder my brain is tired.
  1. I spent four hours in the archives at Harvard yesterday paging through so much material that the poor reference librarians were working overtime just to pull my requested obscure folders, boxes, and files. I cannot say how thankful I am for all the work that these people put in to making sure that I can do my work.

On that note, paging through two hundred year old documents will never get old. However, I live in fear of the day that one disintegrates in my hands through no fault of my own, or I accidentally turn the page a bit too rigorously and tear something that’s older than my country.

Though if I ever need to hide from some murderous gunman, I’m going to do it inside of an archive. They are seriously the safest places I’ve ever encountered and the murderer would have to breech so many levels of security and protocol to find me that I’m pretty sure he would just give up when faced with the infinite yards of red tape at the library privileges office. And even if he didn’t they’d strip him of everything except a pencil, notebook, and digital camera before they would buzz him through three different glass door anyway. And that would be just to get into the reading room! Since we already know that archive librarians are superheros, he’d pretty much have to contend with the most badass of superpowers before he found his way down to me crouching behind the stacks of bad Hamlet Quartos (mostly because those would be the things most worthy of being destroyed that would actually be available in the archive). Although now that I’ve given away my planned hiding spot, maybe I should instead take cover by some collection of modernist paraphernalia…

  1. For the purposes of one of my research projects, over the course of the last week, I’ve clocked more hours than I care to relate conflating the first folio Richard III with Colley Cibber’s 1700 adaptation. While I cry inside to really and truly see the deplorable reworking of my patron Bard’s great works that so many generations of theatre goers were subject too, I also think that this should earn me some kind of stamp on my nerd card. I take every chance I get to bring it up in conversation because, well, who does this stuff? “Oh, yes, I spent another two hours conflating Cibber’s Richard with Shakespeare’s first folio… how was your day at work?” “How’s your paperwork going? Cibber’s just dandy.” “What did you do today? Oh, me? Just understanding adaptations of great works of literature and how they affected generations upon generations of theatre goers and their comprehension of Shakespeare… no big deal.”

another thing that proves my geek cred is my insanely awesome pair of Shakespeare socks.

  1. Dramaturgy is a weird job. To give you a small sampling of questions which have crossed my desk this week: “Define ‘moated grange’.” “What does x line of text mean?” “What are some ritualistic gestures of the Catholic mass?” “Woops! This character was cast as a woman! How do we solve this problem textually?” To my geek cred, I find it fascinating to answer these questions; when I know the answer off the top of my head, it makes my little bard heart sing. When I have to dig for the answer, all the better; I’m learning something about Shakespeare that I didn’t know before!
  2. It’s snowing in Boston! And, as everyone knows, there’s no business like snow business!

And Now for Something Completely Different…

My partner in crime has informed me that, after this week’s previous post, I should probably also talk a little bit about the flip side of the coin.  So, as his advice is generally good, and lest you think that Graduate School is a long, dark, tunnel of stress and upset leading to nowhere positive, I would like to take some time to share a bit about the wonderful things that have happened to me because of (or related to) my experiences in higher education.

Consider the previous post the warning label and this post the advertisement.  Real life, as always, will be found somewhere gently hovering in between.  Or, if you want a picture more true-to-life, real life is actually lived on the extremes.  The average found in the middle very rarely happens, but so long as your good days equal or outweigh your bad days, you can consider your life choice a sound one… at least, I do.

One of the nifty things about being affiliated with a university is that, as soon as you tag that affiliation onto your byline, folks tend to take you seriously.  Because of this (and because of the endless generosity of people willing to take time out of their busy schedules to gab with me about their work), I have had the good fortune of conducting field research at many exciting places this year.  I got to sit down with the man who inspired me to go into Shakespeare studies (a director at Shakespeare & Company by the name

Outside the mainstage at Shake & Co

of Kevin Coleman – he’s playing the fool in their Lear right now and he’s spectacular) and talk about his work.  I got to examine and photograph theatrical designs from a designer’s private archive.  I got to tour and photograph the Rebecca Nurse Homestead during its off-season even though visitors weren’t technically allowed onsite during the time in which I had to do my research.  Would a “normal” person have had these opportunities?  Difficult to tell… but I can certainly tell you that being able to point at a legitimate institution and say that I was part of it definitely helped my confidence by way of things that I was willing to ask for.

Archive access is another neat perk to academia.  The great thing about an archive is that it’s a repository of all kinds of shinies.  Sure, I love books as much as the next nerd, but something about holding a piece of paper older than one’s own country really gets the adrenaline going.  The Harvard Theatre Collection happens to be the oldest and largest Theatre archive in the United States… it also happens to be right down the road from my apartment.  This year, I spent countless hours in the archive digging for buried treasure.  I handled broadsides from the shows affiliated with the Astor Place Riots.  I paged through the Johnson/Steevens edition of Shakespeare (published 1773).  I tried to decipher John Adam’s handwriting off a letter he wrote to dear Abigail.  I (nearly) touched a First Folio (we have two native to Boston – one housed at Brandeis, the other at the Boston Public Library Rare Books room).

At the San Diego Zoo, I made friends with this peacock

I traveled.  This year, I saw two cities for the first time as I conferenced within them: San Diego and Baltimore.  In San Diego, I got to go to the San Diego zoo.  In Baltimore, I had an afternoon at the National aquarium.  In both places, I met graduate students from around the country who were working on projects that I never would have otherwise known about.  I got to be part of the greater academic discourse and understand a bit better what my peers are doing in other areas of the ivory tower.

I connected with my work in the field.  I saw so much theatre this year and, more than just seeing it, I was able to critically engage with it.  I reviewed a great deal of it, but even that which I didn’t review was always discussed with a traveling companion or two.  It’s important to touch the ground now and again and really understand what you’re working on.  In the case of theatre, it’s so easy to bury your head in the book-history and never come up for air.  I’m proud to say that the book learning fueled my desire to see more theatre and really made me pursue productions in the greater Boston area.  This drive to connect with the tangible has introduced me to some amazing venues, some wonderful companies, and some very interesting people.

I accomplished some pretty neat things.  I translated an article from Diderot’s encyclopedia.  I started my quest to learn to read German.  I produced six graduate-level papers (all of which have potential to continue on as larger projects).  I found a way to become involved with a few nifty projects for next year (including dramaturging Measure for Measure and acting the dream role of Rosalind in As you Like it).  I made connections and met people who were not only interesting, but also important to theatre studies.  I wrote a book review which is going to be published in a professional journal (details to follow).  I maintained a blog that has tripled its following over the course of the past year.  Even though I’m only part way to my grand goal, the little victories along the way have helped to sustain me with how truly thrilling they are.

I suppose, as with anything, the payoff of academia is only worth what

and if all else fails, find a bunny to help you with your homework. This bunny’s name is Rory Pond. She’s a she bunny. My friends are a little weird.

you’ve gone through to get it.  So yea, you’ll find yourself in the tunnel sometimes.  Keep calm, remember where your towel is, pour yourself some earl grey, and remind yourself that this is all totally worth it.  And if you begin to doubt that, head over to the archive and pull the oldest thing in the collection.  I guarantee that one look at whatever it is will remind you that your life is pretty cool despite its extreme trials.

Zowie, Powie, Holy Cow

This week, instead of engaging in post-semester flop, I’ve actually had a fairly busy schedule.  Two adventures in particular stand out as being blogworthy…

On Wednesday as a sort of post-mortem field trip, my eighteenth century professor organized an outing to the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale to see their current exhibit “The God of Our Idolatry”: Garrick and Shakespeare.  The Lewis Walpole Library is a collection of materials pertaining to British Eighteenth Century Studies.  It began as the private collection of Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis (a loyal and noble son of Yale), whose fascination was drawn by eighteenth-century eccentric genius Horace Walpole (sidebar: Walpole wrote what many deem to be the first Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764 and also built himself a gothic castle just south of London which he called “Strawberry Hill”.  He decked it out with turrets, towers, false walls, staircases leading nowhere, and a dwarf butler.  Strawberry Hill is open to the public today, though probably sans dwarf butler).  The Library boasts over 32,000 manuscripts, some of which are theatre-related (playtexts, broadsides, drawings/pictures of actors in character and out, etc.).

The library is on beautiful, lush grounds.  Two buildings (the archive itself and the resident scholars’ house (the “root house”)) actually date from the eighteenth century.  A croquet set was arrayed on the lawn upon our arrival.

We were welcomed into the root house to have lunch (it’s furnished in old-school New England style and simply charming) before being ushered into the New Library.

That’s approximately when I decided that I would like to drop everything and live there.

The New Library is an oaken room furnished with bookcases in every corner, leather


wingback chairs, and a baby grand piano.  It’s lit by a chandelier hanging from the cavernous ceiling, and a large arched window at the far corner.  I felt like I had walked into the library from Beauty and the Beast.  I would have been content to just sit in this room all day (perhaps with a book of my own and a snifter of brandy) and pontificate on life’s finer qualities.

But the fun didn’t stop there.  The exhibit was exciting and interesting, of course.  I had just finished writing a paper on Garrick, Shakespeare, and Hamlet, how could I not have fun in a roomful of Garrick paraphernalia?  And let me tell you, the more I learn about Garrick, the more I love that man.  He was simply so delightfully impressed with himself (and, by the way, because of this, the rest of London was as well).

But that wasn’t all!  Then they took us into the reading room where (as usually happens when a group of visiting scholars is being shown an archive) they had pulled materials related to our research interests.

And there, sitting on the table, just waiting for me, were two volumes of the Johnson/Steevens edition (London: 1773).

It doesn’t matter how frequently I handle archival materials, getting to touch documents and books which are hundreds of years old always always gets a rise out of me.  I sat down and lovingly paged through the volumes (they had pulled the index and volume two).  I used the book snake copiously (because book snakes are STILL awesome!).  I reveled in the book cushions.  I tried not to drool on it.


Oh yea, there were other really interesting things on the table (photograph files, original editions of The Constant Lovers and other plays, eighteenth century satire pictures, etc.), but JOHNSON/STEEVENS EDITION!

So, yes, it was absolutely worth the two-hour-each-way drive to get there.  The exhibit, by the by, is free and open to the public during their normal gallery hours (Wednesday 2-4:30), or may be viewed by appointment if you’re really interested.  Really nifty stuff, but likely not worth the hassle to get there unless you’re a super dork like me.

Adventure two: took the best friend to see Little Shop of Horrors for his first time last night (can you imagine, he hadn’t heard the music, seen the movie, or seen the play!  There are still people in this world like that!).  We caught a production by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

I’m having trouble finding shots from the Broadway Revival, but here’s a shot of a regional show which used the original puppet plant from the ’82 off-broadway production to give you a sense of the scope of the thing, and how all-encompassing it should be.

On the whole, the production was fairly solid and traditional.  Unfortunately, I have an extremely soft spot for this show and did manage to catch the 2003 Broadway production which was spectacular so it’s really hard for Little Shop to impress me.  This was a pretty good training-wheels show, and if I hadn’t seen the Broadway production I probably would have been more impressed.

The Charles Mosesian Theater is a big awkward space.  It’s a raked-house proscenium style stage with an audience pit that fans out to the side, creating really awkward sight lines at the extreme angles (which, unfortunately, we were seated in).  In addition, the space is large enough to be good for most musicals, but I truly feel that Little Shop requires a fairly small space.  In order to instill the real terror that the show demands, you want an intimate house that feels like the action can truly leap off the stage and attack you.  To pull off the show’s ending, you need to be able to engulf the theatre in energy and that is extremely difficult to do in a house that’s over one hundred seats.

This production, unfortunately, did not deliver that.  It felt like I was watching a film and didn’t really reach out and grab me.

The performances were solid, but didn’t go above and beyond.  Particularly disappointing was Blake Pfeil’s Seymour who, while he was able to conjure sufficiently weasley and lovable, copped out of every major song-capping note he was given.  Rather than belting that last, glorious, musical-theatre note, he instead chose to speak the last line of his songs.  This may be partially due to the show’s direction which also erred on the safe side of traditional.

On the whole, if this production had just been pushed to the next level, it would have been fantastic.  Even barring the awkward sight lines.

Theatre isn’t safe.  Acting is perhaps the most horrible profession someone can go into.  An actor is paid to tear open the inner recesses of himself and explore his deepest, darkest parts publicly, before an audience, eight times a week.  Little Shop is a campy, comedic romp in the macabre and a study about greed, desire, and the extremities of humanity.  If you play it safe, it becomes a hackneyed walk in Poe’s garden with some songs that everyone already knows.

Little Shop of Horrors plays through May 20th at Arsenal Center for the Arts.  For more info and tickets, check it out here.

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.