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.

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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!

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?

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!

Books Don’t Keep you Warm

Here is your obligatory complaining about the weather post: on Tuesday it was warm enough for a run outside.  Today I’m going to have to shovel my driveway before I leave for class.  Because I live in New England.

I’ve spent the week looking yearningly out of windows and hoping that the words “Spring Break” would actually mean something to the weather gods.  Unfortunately for me, the weather gods are tricksy jerks and care not for a university schedule, or even the pleas of a desperate doctoral candidate looking for some small way to salvage what’s left of her sanity.

On that note, I don’t know why I’m continually surprised at the revivifying quality that exercise has on my mind.  No matter how many times I prove it to be true, I am consistently astounded by the fact that if I go for some kind of physical activity right at the point when my eyes get bloobity and I can’t really read/comprehend what’s on the page in front of me, an hour later I’m raring to go again.  This re-realization only compounds my yearning for the warmer weather; convincing myself to go outside for an hour is so much easier when “outside” is a pleasant place to be.  I do break down and move my workouts indoors during inclement weather, but even walking from my door to the gym can sometimes be a fight when it’s bitter and leaky out there.

If anyone knows anyone who has a hookup with someone who can make spring come faster here in Massachusetts, I’d be ever so grateful.  I’m plumb tired of being cold.

Dissertation work is draining, and my book fort doesn’t seem to be moving one way or another.  This is mostly due to the fact that the minute I manage to reduce my “to read”

artistic desk shot.  This doesn't really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

artistic desk shot. This doesn’t really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

pile to workable number, I get another dose of ILL books from the library and stack them on top again.  Despite diligently hacking away at the pile on my desk (which at one point this week was tall enough to literally bury me), I’m still surrounded by things that need to be read.

I suppose I should look at the other end for any indication of real progress: it is true that my “have read” book fort is steadily growing larger.  It has, at this point, expanded to the point of walling me into my desk.  I have to traverse an obstacle course before I can actually sit down these days.  The scary part is that I haven’t even really begun to work on the bulk of the project; I’m still just picking at the edges.  I suppose that means I’ve chosen a topic ripe for exploration, but it does leave me a wee bit nervous about just how many library books I’m going to be held accountable for before this is all over.

And that’s not even to consider the archival work ahead of me.  I’ve identified piles upon piles of things that I’ll have to sort through; but at least those items won’t follow me home.  Well, they will, but in neatly sifted digitized form so that they won’t take up any room on my floor (just on my hard drive).

And on that note, it’s time to re-launch today’s attack upon Research Mountain.  Wish me luck!