The Truth About Archival Work

The New York Public Library (aka: my home for the next week)

The New York Public Library (aka: my home for the next week). Click to see the website this image comes from.

Tomorrow I’m getting on a plane and heading to New York City for a research trip. I have a lot to accomplish in one (VERY expensive) week in the Big Apple, so I might be less verbose than usual. I hope that isn’t the case though, because—though it would be very easy to forget it thus far—this blog is called “The Six Million Dollar SCHOLAR.”

More likely my posts will be short, moderately successful attempts at synthesizing what I’m seeing in the archive. Like a voice memo, only, you know, not vocalized.

A lot of folks don’t truly understand what historians do, what it actually means when we say we’re doing archival work, so I thought it might be nice to devote a blog post to a discussion of what my archival work looks like.

Majestic much? This is the view from Special Collections. No wonder I keep coming back. Click the image for a link to the website it came from.

Majestic much? This is the view from Special Collections. No wonder I keep coming back. Click the image for a link to the website it came from.

Thus far in my career, I’ve only been to one archive. This is highly unusual for an historian (and within the next month, will no longer be true), but it’s also unusual to have SO MUCH material in one place. I first visited my archive—which is housed in the beautiful New York Public Library—in the winter of 2008. I still haven’t even seen half of what there is to see there. I don’t need to see everything, but my research focus has changed over time. As result, I’ve never seen the same thing twice.

All archives are different. I study ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which means the majority of the sources informing my research come from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I’m not exactly breathing in the dust of ages, but that doesn’t make the work any less exciting.

Okay, who am I kidding, it totally makes the work less exciting. When I get buzzed into Special Collections, I fill out a request form, and instead of getting boxes of old documents, diaries, and assorted ephemera, I get reels of microfilm. Within about an hour of receiving said microfilm, I receive an awful migraine… because microfilm.

And on the seventeenth day, God said, "Let there be migraines!" and delivered microfilm readers unto the historians. And it was bad. Click upon the image for the website  from whence I summoned this foul image.

And on the seventeenth day, God said, “Let there be migraines!” and delivered microfilm readers unto the historians. And it was bad. Click upon the image for the website from whence I summoned this image most foul.

Sometimes I will spend hours staring at material that’s useless to me because I can’t know for sure what reels will hold the information I need. In fact, half of the reason you do archival work is because you don’t know what you’re looking for. You rarely go into research looking for specific documents, and it would be bad practice to cherry pick sources to prove yourself right. So you wade through thousands of pages of stuff, trying to determine what is going to be useful to you later, which pages will be the building blocks of a story you haven’t written yet.

So basically the next week of my life will be spent scrolling. Scrolling and scrolling through less-than-organized reels of stuff, looking for information that will put flesh on the bones of my dissertation. I am actually hoping to look through a couple non-microfilm-filled boxes this time around… in fact, that’s going to be my first stop. Still, the collection I’m using is comprised of an amazing/horrifying 180 reels of microfilm, so I’m resigned to the fact that, instead of hanging out in Special Collections with fancy looking folks and sexy sources, I’ll be in the decidedly less regal basement, staring at a 1980’s computer screen, trying to avoid contact of any kind with my fellow microfilm inmates.

(Last time a creepy dude in sweatpants with a boil on his back—visible through his flimsy white cotton t-shirt—helped me fix my microfilm reader. Then he began volunteering baseball stats, which is apparently what brought him to the Microform Reading Room like, all the time. Then he “gifted” me a copy of USA Today, because I was nicer than all the jerks who told him to stop talking to them. It was… uncomfortable.)

Archival work can be tedious, migraine inducing, and occasionally creepy. So why do so many people want to be historians? After all, there are more of us getting PhDs in the subject than there are jobs in the field. Why, if I hate this so much, have I decided to devote my life to doing it?

Theirs is the story that keeps me coming back to the NYPL. Can you blame me? (Click to be directed to the website I borrowed this image from)

Theirs is the story that keeps me coming back to the NYPL. Can you blame me? (Click to be directed to the website I borrowed this image from)

Because later, when I’m home, I’m going to lay out the hundreds and hundreds of primary sources I’ve gathered, and I’m going to think. I’m going to read—really read—everything I collected. I’m going to remember that the scraps of information I braved migraines and mentally unstable microfilm fans to acquire aren’t just scraps. Not at all. They’re pieces of people’s lives. The anger, the rage, the sadness, the resolve, the hope, all the emotions that fueled ACT UP, will become more real, more palpable. I’m going to remember why this work is work worth doing. I’m going to start seeing connections I never could have anticipated, patterns that may not have mattered to anyone at the time, but that speak volumes about that historical moment in retrospect. I’m going to get ideas. I’m going to realize that I have something to say. And then, I’m going to say it.

No, there’s no Indiana Jones-style action happening in the basement of the New York Public Library. Archival work isn’t like it is in movies. In many ways, it’s much, much better.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

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