Adventures in the Archives: Tips for Minimizing Expenses, Maximizing Time, & Having Fun

Andrea L. Turpin

“It takes a village to nurture a book into being, and I have been privileged to be part of one that stretches from coast to coast.” This is the opening sentence of my book's acknowledgments section, and I thought of it recently when a Baylor history colleague solicited archive stories to share with her graduate class on archival research (wish I’d had one of those!). The stories that jumped to my mind related to creative ways to fund archival visits and maximize time there—which for me very much depended on a network of friends and supporters.

As it happens, I write this from Philadelphia, where I am spending two weeks at the archives of the Presbyterian Historical Society researching for my next book project. Stay tuned next month for my “Know Your Archives” post on this excellent resource for American religious history. In the meantime, here’s an adapted version of the tales and tips that I passed along to our graduate students on how I conducted my dissertation research.

As a single woman, I made a great American road trip and did all my archival research in one year. Then I processed and wrote it up the following two years, rather than alternately researching and writing. During my research year, I visited 12 archives housed in 10 cities, from Boston to Berkeley. I had a blast, came home with some great finds, and managed to spend almost none of my own money above regular expenses. I admit luck and the nature of my topic played a role, but this is the advice I would give graduate students just diving into archival research:
Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

1. Apply for grants. Lots of them. I tell students they can write a strong travel-to-collections grant proposal with a formula something like this: “I am writing on X, which has been overlooked. We need to rectify the fact that X has been overlooked because it will significantly change our understanding of Y (which should be something a reasonable number of people care about). Your specific archives are essential for this project because Z. I am the right person to undertake this research because ABC.”

When selling my students on the glories of researching the history of higher education, I note that choosing that topic for my dissertation/first book meant that it was easy to make the case that a college or university archive should give me a grant: I wanted to write on their institution, which is always flattering, and their institution is always the sole place that houses the archives of their institution. I would add that college archives are excellent—and often overlooked—sources for American religious history, with relevant sources ranging from curricular records, to faculty and administration papers, to the records of student organizations. I found that Princeton University, the University of Michigan, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study all offer unusually generous travel-to-collection grants.

2. Be shameless. In addition to making use of external grants (and an internal grant from the graduate school at Notre Dame), I employed what I admit were a lot of unusual and occasionally risky housing arrangements that often involved me shamelessly asking people—sometimes complete strangers—if I could stay with them. Examples of the incredibly generous people I stayed with for free, in many cases for up to three weeks each, include: (A) a leader of one of my undergraduate student organizations (and her husband and daughter), (B) my mother’s best friend’s friend’s sister and her husband, (C) a woman I had met only once at a conference (and her two roommates and four cats), (D) my brother’s dorm mate’s parents’ friends. Examples of places I stayed for cheap: (A) the extra bedroom of a couple at the church a friend from seminary was pastoring, (B) a Bed and Breakfast that gave me a discounted rate for staying so long, (C) a Motel 6 where I’m pretty convinced there were drug deals going on.

3.  Let archivists help. I have found archivists all over the country to be extremely helpful; it’s literally their job to assist you with your research by suggesting collections and helping you track down materials. Plus, all archivists I have encountered genuinely enjoy seeing their collections get used (well, in the United States, at least; I understand from colleagues this can sometimes be different abroad!) Supreme helpfulness award goes to the archivist who just straight up gave me multiple reels of microfilm (admittedly they had backups) so I could use them outside of archive hours at the library microfilm readers, and simply trusted me to return them. I wasn’t associated with the institution so there was no way to “check them out,” as it were.

4. Tailor your research style to the nature of the archives. Some are extremely informal; others are extremely formal. I used one archive that I’m pretty sure would not have noticed if I’d decided to chew gum and take notes in pen (don’t worry; I didn’t). On the other end of the spectrum, at Princeton’s Rare Books and Special Collections held in Firestone Library they make you wash your hands with their soap, where they can see you, before you go in. And I experienced this range even though almost all of the archives I have used have been housed at universities or colleges!  Similarly, while most archives allow digital photography, some do not.

My research techniques vary depending on whether I can take digital photographs and how long I am able to stay there. For an ultra fast trip that allows digital photography, I just skim to see if something might be useful, take as many pictures as possible, and then process them at home. For a long trip, or one that doesn’t allow digital photography, I spend more time in the archives actually reading the material and taking notes/deciding what photocopies to request. Even if I am going quickly, I back up my records of the source of the documents I’m using by keeping a running list in Word of the Record Group, Box, and Folder I’m viewing, the basic sort of information it contains, key quotes, and thoughts on research directions that the material is spawning. I also always photograph the box and folder before photographing the documents so that it is easy to go back and find folder breaks in a photo sequence. Other historians I know use a scanning app like Genius Scan or TurboScan.

Many archives close in the late afternoon, so if I’m on a tight schedule, I’ll use the time after hours to read through some of the key documents I’ve photographed, search the archive’s online catalogues, or scour the footnotes of relevant books. But it’s still important to…

5. Have fun, both inside and outside the archives. Like most historians, I love the sheer joy of piecing together a story no one has ever uncovered or told before. I think of being a historian as a cross between being a detective and being a story-teller. When I was little, I wanted to be an FBI agent, and in the end I guess I just found a safer way to do that. I’ll add that a close second for fun in the archives is probably reading snarky correspondence where certain people you’re researching say what they really think about other people you’re researching. This fact may say bad things about me.

Strangers always want to know
where I got my portable book stand.

While on my great American tour, I entertained myself outside archive hours by trying out ethnic restaurants, because college towns tend to have great ethnic restaurants. Except at one institution where I entertained myself by going to Target on Friday night because there was literally nothing else to do in the area. And watching Big Love on the free cable at the Motel 6, which I’ll admit later became useful for teaching Mormon history. My last piece of concrete advice: if you’re traveling alone, buy a portable book stand and read while you eat!

In summary, embrace the adventure. You never know what you might find within the archives or without: While I was researching at the University of Michigan, Minnie Driver was filming a movie on campus and I walked right past her. Turns out she’s really short. Now you know.



Anonymous said…
...and in the post-08 age, if you tweet your approximate whereabouts, you might find serendipitous encounters with other traveling #twitterstorians, lol. This is a great resource, Andrea!
Andrea said…
Heh heh, good addition :-). Thanks, Monica!

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