Research Trip Skills; or, “Be Prepared!”

August 8, 2009, 5:23 pm

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 6×6 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 t
wo 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?

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