Into the Archives

I’m looking forward to two weeks of archival work at the NYPL here at home, and at the Lemeleson Center, the National Archives, and the Postal Museum in D.C. In reviewing NARA’s policies for visitors, I stumbled across, and was impressed by, their Digital Vaults.

I’ve logged a good number of hours in various archives — but I’m a bit nervous about this trip. This time, it’s not only about me and the “content”; it’s also about my ability to handle a bunch of other technologies.

Over a decade ago, when I was working in libraries’ institutional archives and architectural offices’ company archives, my research typically involved a staff member either wheeling out a cart full of boxes full of dusty documents, or leading me into a storage room, where I was given free rein to dig through filing cabinets. Depending upon the institution’s policies (or lack thereof), I either took notes on my laptop or with pencil and paper. Some places allowed me to make unlimited copies; in those cases, I’d typically copy anything that looked remotely relevant, then review my stack of Xeroxes later that night or when I returned home after days or weeks on the road. Back then, everything was on paper. All my archival material for my first book filled at least 10 3″ 3-ring binders.

I’ve visited other archives since then — but they all seem to have had rather restrictive reproduction policies. In some places, I was permitted to take only loose leaf paper and a pencil with me into the reading room. Other places allowed laptops. But, as far as I recall, nobody allowed cameras, scanners or digital recorders. Consequently, I missed out on earlier experiences to develop my digital archival (i.e., in-the-archives) research skills.

It’s not as if I was oblivious to the ways that digital technologies had been transforming research methods — particularly archival research methods. I had been using a citation manager; maintaining a database of notes; evolving a system for storing and classifying my pdfs, images, etc. The first “Making History Podcast,” from 2007, reassured me that, at least in my PDF’ing, OCR’ing, annotating, resource-organizing, and citation-managing, I was making good use of available software and hardware. Recently, several presentations at the “Past’s Digital Presence: Database, Archive, and Knowledge Work in the Humanities” conference at Yale addressed the use of digital technologies in the archives. I found Shane Lundrum’s “Camera, Laptop, and What Else?: Hacking Better Tools for the Short Archival Research Trip” particularly enlightening…. And, I must admit, intimidating. My research process sure wasn’t that regimented, and my research packing list rarely contained anything more technologically advanced then a cellphone.

I have a decent publication record — including a book with a good press and several book chapters and peer-reviewed articles — yet the relative lack of technological sophistication of my research methods for some reason made me question the effectiveness of those methods. (I think reading too many ProfHacker posts and listening to too many Digital Campus podcasts has somehow convinced me that early tech adoption is obligatory — as is the deep integration of technology into one’s teaching and research.) It made me wonder if I was missing out on something important because I don’t know how to write Applescript…and I don’t “get” Tweets…and I occasionally even have a hard time setting up a tripod. If this is where research is heading, if this is the kind of research I have to prepare my graduate students to do, am I falling behind?

Initially, my current project was only feeding into these concerns. Most of my previous archival work focused on texts — flat, static, docile paper documents. This time, I’m working not only with manuscripts and maps and blueprints, but also with archival audio, video, and film. Things with moving parts and plugs. Reading the National Archives’ policies for self-service audio and video copying left my head spinning. BNC connector? SUM jack? Awhoza? Awhatza? The list of crap I’d have to schlep down to D.C. on Amtrak seemed endless: I imagined myself rolling up to the archives in College Park, MD, with a UHaul full of recorders and cables and hard drives; the logistics of transporting all this stuff baffled me. Another issue was that I owned few of the tools they recommended — so my internal cash register was anticipating a pretty hefty bill at B&H.

Then Kevin and Jen, godbless’em, came to the rescue. Despite having a brand-new baby, they took some time to introduce me to a few audio and video recorder options, showed me how to record and upload, etc. I’ve chosen equipment for which there isn’t too steep a learning curve, but is still “robust” enough for me to maybe, someday, grow into it (I’ve always wanted to do more audio recording, so I decided to get a recorder that’s a bit fancier than I really need right now — so I can eventually learn how to use all those other features). Now I’m a bit less freaked out. I’m heading over to B&H tomorrow to do some damage.

And soon I’ll head into the archives with some shiny new geegaws in my toolbox. I just hope that all these gadgets don’t get in the way of my engagement with, and enjoyment of, the archival material. I don’t want to be so stressed out about, say, adjusting the resolution on my videorecorder or the gain on my audio recorder that I forget to engage with the content of the film or radio show I’m dubbing…or forget to appreciate that Holy crap, I’m watching something that maybe nobody has seen since 1933. If you ask me, that’s way more awesome than “super bit mapping” and Applescript.

One reply on “Into the Archives”

I can so totally relate to your anxiety of workflow, and applications, and tools, and all the rest. In fact, in many ways I always seem to be looking to simplify all of these things– using plain text files, diminishing my reliance on any one individual app, etc. But, even in doing that I end up chasing around trying to find that just-right set up, and wasting time and brain cycles, and wondering where I should put those two things aside from my content, content, content. Hope your time in the archive was fun!

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