Surviving the archive: 3 things I have learned so far

This summer, I did research in a few different archives in the New York and Washington, DC metro areas. As fall approaches and I get ready for my next phase of research in the US Southwest, I thought I would take stock here not of my findings, but of the archival process.

As you may have guessed from my last post on archive tech, I am determined to make archival research as painless and efficient as possible.

Why painless? In fact, what we do in the archive, aided by modern technology, is actually very taxing on the back, neck, and shoulders. We may be taking dozens of downward-facing pictures and typing thousands of words while transcribing documents, all while sitting in uncomfortable chairs for hours on end.

I strive for efficiency in the archive because I am working in archives far from my home in New York City. Every day I am out of town is expensive, so while I am on research trips, I want to see and captures as many documents as I can.

I have found that these three strategies have helped me find a balance between comfort and efficiency.

  1. Photograph documents selectively and in manageable batches, punctuated by time sitting and reading.
  2. Take frequent breaks.
  3. Admit that archival work is hard and allow for that fact when planning research trips.

I take pictures in short sessions after reviewing an entire folder. As I look through the documents in a folder, I offset the ones I want to photograph (you can also use bookmarks, but I prefer offsetting). This approach also does not seem to bother archivists and does not require you to remove any documents from the folder.

The white page is placed slightly higher in the folder so that when I go back to take pictures, I can easily see which documents I have selected.
One page is placed slightly higher in the folder so that when I go back to take pictures, I can easily see that I have selected and want to photograph that documents.

After I have read through the whole folder, I set up Scanbot and take pictures of the documents I have chosen. Sometimes I decide not to photograph something I selected earlier–I realize it is a draft and I need only the final version, or it simply doesn’t seem important anymore after reviewing the whole folder.

When available, a tripod helps a lot: it is faster, more comfortable, and results in better pictures.

National Archives II in College Park, Maryland has smartphone tripods to lend to researchers, and they are fantastic.

These ideas may seem rather obvious, but I began my research simply photographing documents as I read them. I would end up standing up for long periods of time, with my camera in hand, and reading through documents while still standing. This hurts!

By contrast, my new strategy minimizes the time that I spend standing up and looking down. I do all of the reading and choosing while seated. I take fewer photographs overall since I give myself a second chance to winnow. Another benefit of this strategy is that I alternate between sitting and standing as I first read through and then stand to photograph various folders.

But I also try to get up from the desk quite frequently: ideally, at least once every hour and a half. Before, trying to go as quickly as possible, I would give myself a single break during the archive work day–lunch.

I have found that I am more comfortable and can keep my energy up during the day if I get up more often than that. Sometimes all I do is get a drink of water. Other times I go have a coffee or snack.

Sure, I lose a few minutes when I could have potentially photographed documents. But what I have realized this summer is that I can’t actually just sit, read, and photograph documents for an 8-hour workday with a only brief lunchtime “refueling.”

Working in the archive is hard. Beyond the physically difficult aspects, it demands real mental work, too. The decisions I make about which documents to photograph and which ones to skip are also decisions about what matters in my research project. The archival process forces me to continually reevaluate the research questions I want to answer and the kinds of evidence I will use to do so. This is good, but it is not easy.

And while I know some scholars relish the solitude of the archive, I am an extroverted person who loves to read and research but also to share ideas with others. There are fewer opportunities for social interaction in the archive. For me, archival research takes more grit than I need to get through a day on my home campus.

Knowing this, I plan trips accordingly, looking for ways to make my time when I am not in the archive a little easier. So far, this has meant choosing places to stay that let me avoid a long commute to the archive, or finding lodging in a fun location where I can take walks through beautiful neighborhoods or try new food.

Next week, I head to Texas to do research at UT Austin. I plan to continue using these strategies, but I am sure I will develop new ones, too. Please share your tips in the comments section below!


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