Setting Reasonable Goals: Planning Short Research Trips, part III

This post, the last in a series of posts about planning short archival research trips, deals with setting realistic goals. The previous posts were about scheduling trips and traveling well. I have also written about archive photography technology and archive survival tips.

Of course, the ultimate goal of any short research trip is to get access to the documents needed for the project, and to capture that information in the most convenient format available: digital photography, photocopies, or transcription. Collecting is the objective for any trip, but I am convinced that I need to make personal, well-considered, intermediate-level goals to reach that broader target.

Before and throughout my series of short research trips, I did not actually make specific goals for what I wanted to accomplish. But I did have some implicit expectations for myself, and looking back I am able to say what they were. I did not always find myself able to meet them, and I felt guilty and disappointed because of that.

This is what I thought I should be doing during my research trips, but I realize now that these expectations were not realistic.

  1. I will be working productively in the archive every day it is open during the entire time period it is open.
  2. I will write a daily reflection or digest on what I saw that day, just after leaving the archive.
  3. I will capture everything I could possibly need from the archive for my dissertation.

Here is how I would reframe my goals.

  1. Over the course of a week, I will plan to be in the archive approximately 80% of the time it is open.
  2. While I am in the archive, I will make a helpful index of what I am photographing. At least once a week, I will spend at least one hour writing about my impressions of what I have seen.
  3. Before my trip to an archive is finished, in addition to the material I collect, I will have detailed knowledge of exactly what that archive has that is relevant for my topic.

These goals also reflect what I was actually able to accomplish. They represent what I think is truly reasonable and necessary for me to achieve the overall aim of an efficient, economical, and fruitful trip.

Why 80% of the time? I am giving myself permission to work fewer hours than the archive is open. Roughly, 80% means that over the course of the week, I may take a whole day off from the archive if I want, or I can work shorter days all week long, or take two mornings/afternoons off.

Having a weekly archive-time target means that I can exercise some flexibility in deciding what I do each day without feeling like I am slacking off if the archive is open and I’m not there. If I end up working more than 80% over the course of the week, that’s fine!

For the note-taking and reflection side of things, my new goal is based upon this realization: I did not find the daily summary helpful because it required me to put in an intense burst of thinking and articulating at the time of the day when I was least interested in doing this (right after leaving the archive).

Now, I am more conscientious while I am actually in the archive to add information to my index every time I finish looking at a folder. The index is a guide of where to find things (file names, citation information) with very skeletal remarks about the contents of the folder, and occasional comments only as deep as, say, “really interesting!!!” Making this index in the archive slows down the rate of processing material, but it will certainly speed up the work of locating evidence when I am writing the dissertation.

For more substantial reflection, I choose a time and place to write that is better for me than the late afternoon after spending all day staring at documents. Sometimes my writing time is on the weekends. I might also use a weekday morning to write a bit and arrive at the archive an hour or two after it opens.

In addition to a weekly reflection, I also take advantage of other opportunities to synthesize what I have been seeing, like preparing for an upcoming meeting with my advisor, writing a grant application, or drafting an abstract for a conference. This work sometimes happens after the research trip ends.

Finally, my last goal reflects the fact that it is not realistic to expect to look at everything I could possibly use unless the archive turns out to be a dead end. What is possible though is to manage my time so that even I do not see everything in detail, I become very familiar with what is available and where to find it even if I do not go through it. This way, if it turns out later that I need something else from the archive, I can either get it myself very quickly or hire a research assistant to obtain the material.

As I prepare for my upcoming research stint in Mexico, I am working on new goals and strategies for a much longer trip. What is not changing, though, is my conviction that maximizing the potential of a research trip is not the result of obeying rigid, self-imposed rules. Goals that build in flexibility seem to work much better for both my productivity and happiness.


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!