Saturday, August 08, 2009

Research Trip Skills; or, "Be Prepared!"

I remember heading out on my first research trip. It was when I was just beginning my dissertation, and I thought I would start with a week at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park.

The first thing that happened was that my car broke down. I had to rent another one along the way. Oh, and did I tell you that this was prior to the invention of the easily portable laptop computer? I had not yet purchased the then-revolutionary Kaypro (the computer that looked like a terrorist's suitcase, weighed enough to actually have fissionable material in it, and required two 6x6 discs just to boot up?) So we took notes by hand. That's right: on index cards, just like our high school history teachers taught us.

Although I had some money for a motel, I did not have enough for a motel and a kennel, so I took my long-suffering Labrador Daisy with me. She spent the day in the car, since leaving her in the motel didn't seem like a good idea, and several times a day I would go out to walk her around the grounds of Hyde Park. One time we searched for, and found, the grave of Fala (perhaps short for Fala Dog Roosevelt), and I lectured Daisy on Fala's role in American political history, as well as on the many ways a dog could potentially support a historian's career. She always wanted to know stuff like that.

Poor Daisy. I would never dream of taking a dog on a research trip now, and honestly am not quite sure what I was thinking then -- except that those were the days that preparing for a research trip usually included a sleeping bag and other self-help items, like Ramen noodles and friends to crash with (chapter five of the revised dissertation, which became War on Crime, was researched during a trip to Dallas spent on a friend's couch just days before the birth of her daughter.)

Since that time, much has changed. I have acquired a job, a salary and a research budget; the laptop has been invented (not to mention the internet, so that if you run into someone you don't know in a document you can do a quick Wikipedia search); and my time period has changed drastically, so the amount of archival material I must cover in a Presidential library is staggering, compared to the FDR library. Yes, we have computers, but the White House has computers too!!! -- not to mention ginormous staffs.

But what hasn't changed? What makes for a well-run and productive research trip?

A good map. Yes, we all have Google Maps, and some of us have Google Maps aps. But nothing gets you oriented in a new place like an actual, paper map, preferably -- if you are in a city without a car -- a map with public transportation clearly marked on it. Before you get there, make sure you know how to get from the airport to wherever you are staying; and from your temporary home to the archive. You might even want to figure out where you are eating that first night. There's nothing worse than banging around for twenty-four hours, becoming exhausted and frustrated, and being late for your first appointment with the archivist because you have no idea where you are.

Oh yes -- there is one thing worse: being lost, late and hungry.

Change. Dollar bills and quarters, since it is my experience that every public transportation system works differently, and some really do expect you to be walking around with $2.25 in quarters all the time.

Talk to the archivist well in advance. Before you do this, of course, you will go to the web page (another thing that didn't exist in the Stone Age when I wrote my dissertation. We had the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript and University Collections instead, otherwise known as "Nuckmuck.") Find out all of their hours, their rules, and download as many finding aids as are relevant to your project. Preferably you will do all this even before scheduling the trip, because there are a number of things that could potentially get in your way. You might need a written permission from the donor to use the collection; the collection may be temporarily unavailable; the collection may be off site and need to be brought in for your use (most places this only takes a day, but still); they may have limited space in the reading room and you need to reserve a spot; you might be able to get at least some of what you are looking for on microfilm, or on line; you need to estimate how much time you need to spend there and budget accordingly; you need to know whether you will be permitted to xerox or not.

This last is important: the collections you are working with may be too fragile for the heat of a xerox machine. Anything older than a century often can't take the extra handling that even the most careful researcher would strive for without crumbling. Even at a place like the Schlesinger, for example, no matter how much money you want to throw at them, you are permitted 500 copies a year, even from very recent collections. It's frustrating for someone like me, since (when permitted to) I Xerox everything in sight so that I minimize errors and work with evidence in its proper context -- not just the context of a document, but the broader context you can get from a series of documents. The other thing is that typing for days can make your hands ache even if you do not yet have carpal tunnel syndrome. Xeroxing can also be considerably cheaper than staying longer: even at .50 a page, which is what some places charge, you can get 150-200 pages for what it would cost to stay in the least expensive motel for an extra day. But you might also want to try budgeting for:

A digital camera and a tripod. This is what I am increasingly seeing in the archives, and the Schlesinger (since their issue is the stress caused to the documents) will allow you to reproduce as much as you want this way. But again -- ask. Some deeds of gift might prohibit digital reproduction of some or all of the collection, and archivists are still debating whether the intense flash of digital cameras is damaging to documents as well. Even if you know the archive allows it, notify the archivist, since you will take up twice as much room as the average researcher, and they need to plan space accordingly.

Know that if you are using handwritten documents, particularly those in early periods when spelling was erratic, that it will take you a couple days to learn to read them properly. Need I say more? When I was doing the research for my second book, much of which is devoted to the late nineteenth century, I can't tell you how relieved I was at the point in the archive when the portable typewriter was invented. But there is a more general point here: give yourself more time than you think you need. Don't squeeze in a few days for a new collection thinking that you are going to race right through it, unless and until you know what is there. When, and if, it really looks like you are not going to finish what you planned, have the remainder of the collection pulled anyway and take two or three hours to sketch through it so you know how much time you need to plan for your next visit.

A couple throwaway mechanical pencils. Currently I am fond of the BIC Matic-grip. No one allows pens in the archive, and the pencils they have for you to use are never, ever sharp -- or if they are, it is because you are running up to the desk all the time to sharpen them.

A small notebook. Most of your preparatory notes should go on your laptop, since many archives won't permit you to take any papers of your own into the reading room. But if they do, I find that having a little notebook to jot down ideas, to chart a narrative as it is emerging from the documents, and to keep track of what I have done, is enormously helpful.

Appropriate clothes. Mostly I mean appropriate to the weather, something that is worth checking before you leave. Do you need to take a small umbrella? Warm clothes? Or prepare for hot weather? Good walking shoes? How "nice" do you need to look?

On this last, you would be asking the wrong person, since my idea of looking good is jeans, a clean black tee shirt and a suit jacket. Archives actually used to have dress codes, and it is worth checking some of the stuffier, private ones that still might. But again -- keep in mind where you are going and who you will see when you are there. Be informal, but never, ever wear clothes that make you look like you have just stepped in from the beach. No glimpses of midriff, cargo shorts, tube tops. It is not unlikely that at major archives you will run into Important People, and if it matters to you to be able to impress them with your professional demeanor, you should by all means do so. It is also not unwise to be aware of Where You Are. I wear the same clothes all the time; at the GLBT Historical Society I fit right in; at The Reagan Library I stick out like a sore thumb and confound the section of people's brains devoted to matching pronouns with people (although I would hasten to say that everyone is very polite all the same -- and by the way, the food is delicious at the Reagan.)

A guidebook to the area you are going. Because a research trip should be fun too, after you leave the archive. I remember chatting with one of my grad school mentors years ago about whether s/he was going to do any research over the summer, and s/he admitted that the only reason s/he was putting it off was that it was too lonely. I am rarely lonely when I am alone, but I realize that may be unusual: in fact, I often try to schedule a few dinners with friends when I travel on research, and I mark out a couple things I want to do that I might not get to do at home (on this trip that includes a Giants game, dinner at Chez Panisse, and a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore.) But remember that every trip takes you to some place, and particularly if the archive is a local one, you want to get some sense of where you are -- and where the people you are writing about lived.

This last, I can't emphasize enough, regardless of what field you are in: in the end, as historians, it is our job to deliver as honest and insightful account as we can of the people and phenomena we describe in our books. Whatever else history is, it is also art, and a representation of what was. Above all, your research trip should take you to a place, and you need to reproduce that place.

And while you are at it -- did I mention you should have some fun?

23 comments:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

"Know that if you are using handwritten documents, particularly those in early periods when spelling was erratic, that it will take you a couple days to learn to read them properly."

May I add that that "couple of days" increases in a linear fashion based on how far back you are going, and exponentially if you're dealing with a foreign language? Just about every medievalist (and a couple of colonial Latin Americanists) I know has had a story similar to mine: in spite of training in paleography, we were reduced nearly to tears the first time we got a look at an actual document ("My career is over!" was my thought for about 48 hours). Don't give up, and accept any help that is offered. But be prepared for the overwhelming frustration.

And TR: did you actually buy a Kaypro?

Fletch said...

While some archivists may still be debating the issue, the miniscule amount of "damage" caused by flash photography is well understood to have little impact upon the longevity of documents.

Katrina said...

And not to mention that simply taking a photo of an open book or folio while it is on the cushion on the table is far gentler than flipping it over and slamming it onto the bed of a xerox machine, with the lid coming down on the spine.
Some archives, such as those at the Hague, allow you to copy digital scans of their microfilms to your own disk - for FREE.

And Notorious - the paleography - tell me about it. Struggling with that right now!

Susan said...

Like Notorious, my first day in the archives led me, by 3 PM to have (a) the worst headache of my life and (b) serious fear that I'd never write a dissertation.

And, like you, my dissertation notes were all on paper in pencil. Because I had to carry them all back from the UK, I used those flimsy note pads, rather than real index cards. It was immeasurably lighter.

THe notebook is really important. At the UK National Archives (which will forever be the Public Record Office in my head) they won't let you bring in loose pieces of paper.

Oddly enough, older paper is often in better shape than the crappy 19th c stuff; so if things are not bound, I've never had trouble photocopying 17th C documents. (The paper is real rag). I haven't yet done a trip with a digital camera, but I know I will use one in my next project. But not all the archives will allow the use of cameras...

Anonymous said...

Just a question: I spent a week at Hyde Park recently going through letters to the President about his economy plan of 33 and his veto of the Bonus Bill. What I found was that many of the supporters of the President's actions sent type written letters applauding his actions because their "tax burden" was already "onerous." This got me to thinking: Income taxes before WWII only impacted a small fraction of the population. And I would think that it was mostly that same small fraction of the population that would have access to typewriters. Your average working class person, it seems to me, would a) not be paying income taxes and b) would most likely not have access to a typewriter and therefore send a hand written letter. So my question is: do you think contrasting the content of handwritten versus typewritten letters would be a somewhat valid as a class analysis?

Also, what is the deal with all the people that sent in letter on hotel stationary? This seems to have been a very common practice then.

One other thing occurs to me: can we assume that people using stationary with typeset name and address info, even if the letter is handwritten, are middle or upper class?

Lawrence Richards
Miami University

Tenured Radical said...

Notorious: I did buy a Kaypro, and I think I traded it in at a store on Broadway for my first PC.

Katrina: The downloading for free won't come to Americanists in my lifetime, but it is a terrific idea. And yes, xeroxing is terribly hard on documents, but so is routine handling, if you think about it. Watching some people handle folders is a caution, even when they aren't copying.

Susan: Older paper can be better, I agree -- what really stinks is the post-typewriter carbon copy, and often that ink bleeds into the poor paper over time, becoming exponentially harder to read. But that paper also crumbles. You know what is really sturdy? Corasible bond.

Lawrence: I haven't thought about the New Deal seriously for a while, but a couple things seem relevant. One is that I think historians generally agree now that people who write presidents are motivated, and that while the sentiment they express is meaningful, it isn't particularly representative. As for the hotel paper I would guess a couple things. Business people traveled a fair amount, lots of single men lived in hotels, and I know my relatives from that era (they were middle class) routinely lifted hotel paper and used it for months afterwards,

As for typed envelopes, I think we can assume that those people had secretaries. Also, your initial point -- that very few people paid federal taxes -- is the relevant one, I think, and probably an important insight about the duration of anti-tax sentiment. They may have been property owners, however -- I would look into the the question of local real estate taxes (Becky Nicolaides writes about this in My Blue Heaven.)

Anonymous said...

I'd add that if you're not working in the U.S. or some other technology-obsessed country, the chances of having downloadable inventories on the website are slim to none (although admittedly improving for some places, however slowly). More advance planning is required to order published inventories through ILL or to write by snail mail to the archivist to inquire about holdings.

Also, in r.e. equipment for the archives themselves, check the room regulations before you go or plan for all eventualities. In the country I work in, notebooks are not allowed in the archives-loose paper only. Digital cameras are allowed in most places these days, but tripods are often not allowed, so learn how to hold your camera stead at a very low aperture setting. A plug splitter appropriate for the local electrical system is also very handy, since many libraries and archives (even in the US) provide only one plug per seat. The researcher equipped with laptop, camera AC-adapter and/or battery recharger has to juggle plugs and sometimes find all out of juice at the same time!

One last tip: be prepared to fall back on taking notes by hand when/if your computer dies, power goes out, no plugs are available in your archive!

parezcoydigo said...

I did a quick trip to Quito this summer-- three weeks, with 13 total days in the archive. I knew what I was looking for (criminal prosecutions of sexual behaviors from 1760-1790 plus murder, jail, and a few other types of government correspondence). With a 10mp digital camera and a tripod, I was able to take 19,000 pictures-- most of which were open-faced manuscript pages. Why so many? I found in writing my dissertation that some of my most important observations came from procedural developments that we usually ignore-- and I found this out because I photo'd whole cases, not just the juicy bits.

I never use the flash, in part for battery preservation and also for speed. With a tripod and even descent ambient light, today's digital cameras can totally compensate. I also did this for my dissertation research in 2003 with a much cheaper, and lower resolution camera, to great success-- in fact I took photos for 9 months and then did all of the reading back at home.

I would suggest that a person develop a system if using a digital camera-- with very clear notations on picture #, document, folder, etc.

Lastly, even if you can photocopy docs instead of photographing them, I'd suggest the pictures are far superior. I have paleography issues at times- including docs from the 16th century, but also just plain bad handwriting. I have found that the ability of today's software to manipulate the images can greatly enhance one's ability to read them.

Gavin Robinson said...

Always take warm clothes to an archive, no matter how hot it is outside, as they often have the air conditioning turned right down (is it to stop people sweating on the documents?). Never mind image or etiquette: if you have a bare midriff you'll be cold!

Coins are useful for photocopying, printing and lockers as well as public transport. If you're going to London you can order an Oyster card in advance, which saves you from needing change or understanding fares on public transport.

I second everything parezcoydigo said. Even a fairly average digital camera will give much better image quality than xerox or microfilm. Sometimes it can be quicker and easier to photograph a whole volume of documents without looking at them until you get home. Also consider whether it might be easier and more cost effective to pay someone else to go to the archive and take the photos.

Always check exactly what you can and can't use and whether you need to sign a copyright form or pay a fee for photography. For example, the UK National Archives (but Susan is right, it will always be the PRO) automatically allow users to photograph pretty much anything now (they used to make us sign a form but now they don't). They don't allow flashes or tripods, but they provide stands at some desks along with lamps which provide enough light that you don't need a flash. Just don't forget to turn your flash off! The PRO even allows and encourages readers to upload document images to Flickr, so always search Flickr before you plan a trip there.

Make sure you know what your photos are of. Get into the habit of photographing the manuscript number on the outside of the box or wherever, so you know where the following photos came from. And the old pencil and notepad are always useful for making notes about what you're photographing and why. Also note how long it takes you so you can plan future trips more accurately.

Practice some shots beforehand with different settings to see what works best and so you know what you're doing. My new camera has an anti-shake feature which really cuts down on blurred photos when I don't have a stand.

Make sure you have enough storage for the images you're going to take, whether it's spare memory cards, a laptop, image tank, or MP3 player.

A mains adaptor for your camera is pretty important if the archive has power points. If not, take plenty of batteries. Even if they're rechargeable you can get through an awful lot in a full day.

dance said...

The PRO (ugh, "UK National Archives") also started a wiki where people can share their indexing of volumes. I've not spent much time with it, but it may offer something. Did not know about the Flickr, how fun!

Agreed that flash is likely not necessary---my PRO pix were fine without. I posted about my camera in archives here.

I actually hate PB&J in the US, but in London, it was a cheap and filling lunch---I could carry two sandwiches to the archives, buy tea to go with it, and the second sandwich you didn't need at lunch makes a fine (if squashed) snack in a park around 6pm. For people going from small cities to big, be prepared to pack for being walking around from 8am to 11pm--which for me meant a computer backpack and sneakers that were small and discreet enough I didn't feel like a hiker in bars.

Also, look for friends in the archives---there will be other grad students/young faculty on their own in a city. I once introduced two people at the PRO who are now married.

adjunct whore said...

These are great tips....I'm working at the Huntington now and I would add a sweater, these rooms are often freezing, no matter what season your visit; and time to adjust to manuscript card catalog systems and/or finding aids.

And time, period, since good research means following it where it takes you.

Rocketman said...

"confound the section of people's brains devoted to matching pronouns with people"

Probably my favorite Radical one-liner of all time.

Digger said...

I always leave out the "don't be hungry" part, and skip lunch. And I always regret it at about 2:30 or 3pm, when closing time is approaching and I can't concentrate because I'm hungry. I always think it will save me time, and I'm always wrong. I'm heading for some research this week in the Empire State, and I will pack at least a granola bar or something I can step outside and wolf down.

GayProf said...

These are all good, but the part about spending time in the local area is really great. It's also important to remember that most archives are open for fairly limited hours. So, unless you can really sit for six-eight hours in an archive and then return back to your room to write, you will welcome distractions during evenings and weekends.

shaz said...

One more suggestion: write down the complete citation to EVERYTHING you touch -- including those collections/boxes that you decide have nothing useful. Otherwise, when you come back to the archive years later, you may wind up wondering if you looked at it, or when you compile a bibliography of what you covered, you'll be clueless. Learned this one the hard way.

Anonymous said...

Excellent list! I use a digital camera and take pics of the boxes and folders before I photograph the contents. This helps with labeling -- though make sure to write things down as well. For those who take digital pictures, do you have a preferred photo storage/organization program/system? I've been using folders in iPhoto but I feel like there must be something better out there. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

TR,
Please tell us what research project it was that took you to the Reagan library, I'm dying to find out.

Tenured Radical said...

The Meese Commission & anti-pornography politics in the 1980s.

Fun, eh?

gspotmagazine said...

Thanks for the great tips.

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