Planning Short Archival Research Trips, part I

This post is the first in a short series about how to plan for short archival research trips. My last post was on what to do while in the archive, but now I will focus on the many logistical elements that researchers must plan out in order to actually get to the archive!

While some dissertation projects might not require visits to multiple cities, I suspect that most do, and virtually anyone working on transnational history will need to move around quite a bit.

These are some aspects that I found unexpectedly difficult about shorter trips.

  1. Knowing where to start.
  2. Calculating how long to stay.
  3. Finding appropriate lodging.
  4. Becoming a budget travel pro.
  5. Setting reasonable goals for the trip.

I’ll be talking about these challenges in the next few blog posts, and I’ll share some ways to make the process easier.

This first post will cover the first two challenges. The others will be covered in subsequent posts, so check back soon.

After I defended my dissertation proposal and finished my exams, it was time time to begin the research. My proposal listed many cities and archives, but there was no clear analytic or methodological reason to start at any given place. I decided to start close to my home in New York, then travel to relatively nearby Washington, DC, then head farther afield to Texas, and finally go to California. The reason was not methodological, but personal: I wanted to spend the summer mostly at home in New York.

Incidentally, this was a good way to organize research trips for another reason. By starting close to home, I gave myself a chance to make mistakes or learn some crucial information in a relatively low-pressure setting: archives that are relatively easy to travel to are also easy to go back to. This is not the case with far away archives where there is pressure to make each day count and return trips are prohibitively expensive.

Once the order of trips is established, the next challenge is to estimate how much time is needed at each research site. Of course, carefully reviewing finding aids, emailing or calling archivists, and checking the availability of online materials are important first steps. Reading something about the history of the institution where the archive is located can also yield important clues.

But determining how much time to spend in a given city, or in a given archive, really gets easier after actually beginning the research. In my case, things I learned at the first few archives, like roughly how university publications are formatted, or how collections of personal papers are usually organized, or when institutions began to keep data on foreign students, helped me estimate how much time I would need in the next research sites.

However, nothing can guarantee an accurate calculation of how much time is needed. After my trip to Texas, where I spent four weeks and covered exactly what I needed to cover without any dead time, I headed to Los Angeles expecting to have a similar experience. In fact, I finished in half the time I had allotted.

Deciding what to do with extra time was stressful. Staying put would mean time lost, but going elsewhere would be expensive and hard to arrange at the last moment.

In my case, I was able to change my housing reservation in Los Angeles and book new plane tickets to travel to the California Bay Area, and I did some research there I had not expected to be able to include.

The new plans were formed very quickly because they were not actually new. They were plans I had already made but set aside. In my earliest research planning, I cast a wide net, and the “dream itinerary” described in my dissertation proposal included many more research sites than I have the time or funds to complete. But when I finished in Los Angeles very early and very far from home, I had other plans ready to implement, and I could take advantage of the extra time.

As someone who likes to make plans months (and years) in advance, I still think it is worth planning short research trips expecting to make changes, or delaying commitments to housing, plane tickets, and dates for longer than I would otherwise.

Each archive taught me something about what I might find at the others and how hard it might be to find it, and waiting to make plans gave me a chance to learn more from the first archives to make better plans for the next ones.

The next post will cover points 3 and 4 about what to look for in housing and how to travel optimally as a researcher on a budget.

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