On The Road: Radical Research Tips For Historians And Other People

March 6, 2011, 7:43 pm

The National Archives

Your favorite Radical is settled in at the  Rumor Mill in Culver City, an Internet cafe that has a convenient coin laundry next door.   Research trips lasting longer than a few days necessitate either big luggage or laundry.  I opted for the second, since I had a Sunday, and since my travel wardrobe consists mostly of black tee shirts I only need to do one load.  But laundry also gives me another opportunity, which is to hang out and see a little bit of where I am.  Last night I walked Abbot Kinney in Venice and had an outstanding dinner at 3 Square Cafe and Bakery (barbecued ribs and sweet potato fries, with a cucumber, watercress and yogurt salad to start) and spent the rest of the evening checking out tee shirts that cost between forty and sixty dollars.

I had spent the day at UCLA Special Collections in the Women Against Violence Against Women papers.  For those of you who haven’t heard me give a paper or a talk lately, WAVAW was one of several radical feminist groups that became involved in the effort to curb the production and sale of pornography by the mid-1970s.  This grassroots movement was soon opposed by other feminists, civil libertarians and (of course) the pornography industry itself, and has become famous as the “sex wars” of the 1980s.  This is a history which intersects (and is often confused) with a second, conservative, movement to enforce obscenity laws which, I will argue in my book, is a crucial historical distinction that has been overlooked.  This latter story is partly told in political archives:   hence my repeated trips to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (RRPL), where records that lead up to and through the Meese Commission’s national hearings on pornography in the mid-1980s are located.

But the difference between these two experiences led me to think that a quick post on research trips might be helpful, particularly for those of you just starting out in graduate school who are planning research, but also for scholars who may not have been to an archive in a while.  So with that, here are a few of the Radical’s Research Tips:

Expense.  This is by far the greatest barrier to research nowadays, even for established scholars.  At Zenith, research money has actually decreased over time, not just because it has not kept pace with inflation, but because it is low hanging fruit and can be cut without affecting the entire faculty.  I find it easy to get the standard research awards from Zenith, but those now available from university coffers don’t usually cover my expenses anymore. While costs can be cut by staying, or traveling, with friends, and driving rather than going by plane or train, a solo one to two week research trip that includes meals, transportation and hotel can’t be budgeted at much less than $150.00 a day.  That is *with*  relatively modest priced accommodations that don’t smell, Southwest getaway fares (often cheaper than a round trip train ticket in the Northeast), and the lowest priced rental car (a necessity if you are doing research in a city without reliable public transit.) 

What can help you out are research funds that are sometimes available from the collections themselves to help scholars make a trip.  History graduate students should also check out the American Historical Association’s Awards and Fellowships for travel money that in some cases is specially designated for you.

Call ahead — call way, way ahead.   Everything below follows from this, and anything you can plan prior to actually arriving at the archive extends the value of your research dollar.  Don’t forget that archivists like you to use their stuff, and that they know more about any collection than you can possibly find on line.  They will always help you if you bother to ask.

Finding aids that aren’t on line can usually be sent via email, and detailed descriptions of your project can sometimes elicit suggestions from the archivist about other collections you might want to look at.  The good archivist can often have several boxes waiting for you when you get there, and help you prioritize the documents you want to look at first.  Some collections may be off site and will take a couple days to retrieve.  Scholars working in presidential libraries established since the 1960s should also be prepared to have erratic access to political documents that have not yet been cleared for public use.  The process of clearing presidential materials slowed dramatically during the George W. Bush administration, and although the Obama White House has a far greater commitment to access, you will find that vast numbers of documents unrelated to national security matters have not been cleared yet.  Historians of the recent political past will also find that even though categories of materials have been cleared, memos from political advisers to the president have not, on the theory that advisers should be free to give advice without being castigated for it in their lifetimes.  So don’t expect to find that “smoking gun” that you might find in, say, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library.

You also want to find out from an archivist what you have to do to get oriented, and how much time you need to build in for that on your first day.  It varies widely.  At the Reagan Library, for example, it takes about five minutes to get up and running; at the Library of Congress, getting your researchers card can take up to an hour, depending on how many researchers show up that day.  Find out what the restrictions are:  several decades ago, the New York Historical Society actually had a dress code that required women to wear skirts.  Feminism took care of that one, but other issues crop up.  For example, archives that require government issued ID cards often put trans people who have not yet (or do not ever wish to) officially transition to a gender other than the one they were given at birth are not infrequently put in the difficult position of disclosing their status to an uncomprehending person.  There are few good ways to handle this, as far as I can tell, and those who have dealt with this barrier to access might want to leave experiences in the comments section.

Finally — and this may shock you — there is limited seating in many reading rooms.  I have never heard of someone showing up and not getting a chair, but wouldn’t that be a drag?

Getting and using the documents you need.  There is no such thing as standard archival practice when it comes to making pulls (for nubies, a “pull” is when they go and get your stuff.)  At the New York Public Library, for example, you can’t put in a request ahead of time, and there are only a few pulls a day:  if you don’t make the
11:00 pull, you are $hit out of luck until 1:00 — which really means 1:30 when all is said and done.  At the Reagan, there are no rules about when you put you requests in, and the boxes appear within ten or fifteen minutes, but that isn’t true at all NARA facilities.

Archives also have different rules about how many boxes you are allowed at any one time; whether you are allowed to have the whole box on the table or just one folder; and whether you have to wear little white cotton gloves to protect what you are looking at from the oil that naturally forms on the surface of your skin.  Theft of documents is a terrible problem, and you may be asked to jump through all kinds of hoops that seem like unnecessary obstacles to you but are important to keeping historical materials out of the hands of unscrupulous people who put them on the autograph market.

Copying is another variable:  National Archives (NARA) facilities have a pretty liberal copying policy, for example, although quite sensibly, they won’t let you xerox documents that aren’t in good shape.  The Schlesinger Library allows only 500 copies, per researcher, per year, on the sound principle that the extra handling, heat and light is too hard on the collections.

Digital photography has, I am glad to say, mostly solved these problems. I used to include a xeroxing budget in every research funding request, and I no longer do because most places will let you use a camera (with flash and sounds turned off) to photograph documents.  A cheap digital camera is possibly the best research investment you can make, and many people use a tripod, although I don’t.  An iPhone produces surprisingly good reproductions, and I suspect that other smart phones do too.  Word to the wise:  even with a tripod, photographing documents can be really hard on your back.  Bring a computer in to download your research periodically and every night you should make some kind of back up.  I recommend your university server, Google’s cloud, or Dropbox.  God forbid your electronics should be stolen, and poof! There goes even a couple day’s work that has to be redone.

That said, I discovered to my surprise that in one of my archives, they don’t permit photography, and xeroxing is almost $2.00 a page.  Be prepared to type, just like in the good old days:  most importantly, it is simply going to take you longer to make your way through a collection without copying, and you need to know that when you are figuring out how long you need to be there.  These documents should also be backed up at the end of everyday.

Check to see what is up on line first.  Increasingly, archives are preserving documents by making them available online.  Doing this work before you travel can get you oriented to the collection and give you a better sense of what, and who, you are looking for.  That said, always check the finding aid against the online collection. I was assured by one archivist that “most” of a collection I was using was available online and that I probably didn’t need to make a trip to the archive:  matching the online listings to the finding aid allowed me to see that well over a third of the folders in the finding aid were not represented in digital form, and that many folders had not been reproduced in full.

What are the documents you won’t find on line?  Ephemera, for one thing.  One thing I am interested in is what it cost to run a grassroots feminist anti-pornography group, and where the money came from.  Some of this information has to be cobbled together from handwritten notes, bank statements and receipts; other information can be found in IRS filings.  Neither of these is of interest to the general public, and IRS filings raise privacy issues, as does anything with a name and address on it.  The letter items are crucial to seeing who was involved, and what other groups they may have belonged to.  You also won’t find the often intensely personal notes that activists wrote to each other (“Dear Sister….”) that reveal interpersonal dynamics, conflict, euphoria, and burn out that radical feminist groups produced.

And finally, take time off to have fun.  I don’t have to tell you how to do this, do I?  Get a guide to the city; use Yelp; buy tickets to something in advance (when traveling alone, a single ticket purchased at the last minute can be surprisingly cheap); eat at a restaurant you have always heard about; and make dates with friends, particularly in your final days when the archival work can get exhausting and mind-numbing.  Research is fun, but it can also be isolating.  You are traveling, after all:  take some time to be where you are.


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