Lost in the Archives, Found on Castro Street


This post comes to you from a hotel room in San Francisco, where I’ve spent the past ten days doing archival work. I’ve been here for ten days now, and—thank goodness—will be returning home tomorrow. In the past month, I think I slept in my own bed four times… the rest of the time has been spent living out of suitcases at various and sundry points across the United States. It’s been a very long month.

This research trip was incredibly productive. I’m leaving tomorrow with thousands of pages of material.  I’m also leaving in an acute state of information overwhelm. The quantity of information I found in the archives, and the limited time frame within which I have been working, has meant I’ve only been able to actually read about 1/5 of the material I collected in the past ten days. Even so, I know there are at least two more archives that I should have hit up while here. It’s actually pretty amazing; folks in SF have done an amazing job collecting and preserving the history of the AIDS crisis.

Panicking over the amount of material at my disposal, and trying to figure out the logistics of a return trip, are great problems for an historian to have. Trust me: I’ve had the experience of coming up empty, and it’s the worst. Nevertheless, the position I find myself in right now is… uncomfortable. I’m not fun when I’m overwhelmed.

Overwhelm sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. Earlier this week, I was utterly unmoored. That wasn’t the end of the world either, but try telling that to an unmoored-Andrea. Try telling that to any academic, actually.

Much of the past week and a half has been spent in a fog, trying to wrap my head around the outlines, the ethos of the archive, as opposed to thinking through individual documents. In my case, that’s a dangerous place to be… a slippery slope of insecurity. What does it all mean? What kind of conclusions can I make based on these kind of archival materials? Can I really construct an argument on the basis of documents like this? Do I need to change my dissertation topic to accommodate the archive? Could it be that nobody’s done this kind of research before because it’s not actually interesting? Could I have just wasted a ton of time and money? Is it possible I just collected thousands of pages of material I’ll never use? Did I lose my iPhone charger? I DID! Holy crap! What am I even doing here?!

One day this week, my research anxiety got so bad that I was either going to vent, or have a mini-breakdown. I did what I always do when I’m in trouble: I called my mom. She listened quietly as I rambled for about ten minutes, jumping wildly from “I’m seeing this interesting trend…” to “I don’t think I can write a dissertation,” from “I think I’m going to need to do oral histories” to “I can’t deal with all the street harassment in San Francisco!” She then proceeded to tell me exactly what I needed to hear:

“Go home. You could have everything you need in front of you, but there’s no way you’re going to see it right now. Walk away.”


I was only able to take half of that advice, given the time constraints within which I’m working. I spent a couple more hours taking photo after photo after photo, and then I went home, and fell into bed. At, like, 5 PM. I got a (very) good night’s sleep. The next morning—instead of running to archive A for a couple hours before my appointment at archive B, the original plan—I got on a cable car, went to the Castro, stopped by Hot Cookie, and bought a bunch of food I have no business eating, including a cookie shaped like a certain part of the male anatomy… because it’s the Castro.


I wandered the streets, stared in shop windows, and imagined what it was like living there in the early eighties, the late eighties, the nineties. I thought about the people I met through my research: the archivists, who told me about their experiences; the dead, whose voices live on in the sources; friends, colleagues, and mentors who once walked the same streets; and those people who, if very much alive, still only exist for me on papers tucked away in folders and boxes.

I wandered the streets of the Castro, and I remembered why I came to San Francisco to begin with, why I decided to go to graduate school, and why I want to be an historian.I also realized why I was so scared.

Rummaging through archives is a wonderful experience, one I wish everybody had at least once in their life, but it’s a space in which one is easily unmoored. Sometimes that means that the people you read about become hopelessly abstracted, other times you lose track of your research question, or realize that question is utterly unanswerable. Still other times, you lose track of yourself. In my case, I think all of those things happened.

CASTRO1The sheer volume of information I encountered in my archive forced me to recognize how little I know. Meeting people who lived the experiences I’m interested in historicizing—while inspiring—left me questioning my ability to tell their story. I realized that my dissertation needed to be radically restructured; some topics were far better documented than I’d anticipated, and others proved to be total dead ends. I realized that the archive is slowly but surely forcing me into work that strays from both my intended path, and the path I’ve prepared myself to travel. I began to feel incredibly small in comparison to the big, big, big task ahead of me.

Once I got myself out of the old musty rooms and into the streets, I remembered why I’d entered those musty rooms to begin with. I remembered that all the amazing people I’d encountered want me to do this work, have encouraged me to do this work. They built these archives so I could do this work. The task before me is very large, and yes, I feel a bit small in comparison, but the answer is to GROW, not shrink. If I became unmoored in the archive, I dropped my anchor in the Castro.

And so here I am, sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco. I’m physically, emotionally, and intellectually exhausted. I’m totally overwhelmed. I’m also very thankful that my anchor has been recast, and really, I couldn’t have chosen a much nicer place to do it.

“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.

Containing “Ebolaphobia”

I sat on my hands for as long as I could, but folks, it’s time to talk about the Ebola outbreak.

Cards on the table: when I first heard that cases of Ebola were being reported in West Africa, I had a momentary freak out. I’ve been terrified of contagious diseases since I was a wee pup, when I made the ill-advised decision to join my parents in watching a made for TV movie about Steven King’s The Stand. I only made it through the first night of the three night series, and I still get goose bumps thinking about it. If I ever start digging a mysterious hole in my backyard, it won’t be a bomb shelter… it’ll be a poor-man’s quarantine unit.

So no, this is not a holier-and-not-so-coincidentally-smarter-than-thou rant about how silly it is that there are folks out there worrying about an Ebola outbreak outside of West Africa. I totally get it. This stuff is scary.

The thing is, I’ve made a career of learning about all the terrible things we’ve done to our fellow man in the name of protecting ourselves from contagious diseases we didn’t understand. So, briefly, I want to use the knowledge I’ve acquired to help other hypochondriacs out there who know they probably shouldn’t be nervous about Ebola, but still kind of are. You might not be able to un-learn the fear, but you can at least harness and use its power for good.

Before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear:

We have been culturally conditioned to fear Ebola.

If you’re like me, the word “Ebola” provokes an immediate response because, and only because, you saw the movie Outbreak.

The disease around which the 1995 movie revolved—“Motaba”—is fictional, but it’s also widespread knowledge that the writers had Ebola in mind when crafting their super virus. I haven’t seen that movie since the 7th grade, when I wrote a paper on it, but believe you me, I remember it very well. It was simultaneously one of my favorite movies, and one of the scariest things I’d ever seen.

(Note: the 2011 film Contagion may be the source of your paranoia, but it’s basically a remake, so we’re going with Outbreak for the time being).

The first symptom of Ebolaphobia is repeat viewing.

Here’s the thing: Motaba is indeed based on Ebola, but there are some really key differences between the two. The reason Outbreak was so freaking dramatic was because the virus in question was airborne. Remember the scene with the tiny tear in the hazmat suit? OMG!

Wouldn’t happen in real life. Ebola is spread through contact with the blood and bodily fluids of an infected animal or person. You can’t get it by the sheer act of breathing, much less by having an itsy bitsy tear in your hazmat suit. Ebola is scary, but it’s not Motaba-scary.

Okay Andrea, you say Ebola isn’t as scary because it’s not airborne… but you study AIDS. That’s a pretty scary virus tooI! Touché, imaginary interlocutor!

But wait! The containment period for Ebola—“containment period” being the time during which you are infected but not displaying symptoms—is measurable in days… sometimes weeks. The reason HIV/AIDS is so insidious is that you can be HIV positive and entirely symptom free for years.

Hard to miss symptoms like this, folks...

Hard to miss symptoms like this, folks…

So what? Most of us have a natural aversion to people who look really sick, especially when there’s a lot of diarrhea—and eventualy blood… Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever, remember—involved. The folks at risk of contracting diseases like Ebola,therefore, are the ones who run towards the sick: the people who love them, and the health care workers whose sworn duty it is to help them. Put put another way, if you’re coming in contact with the blood and/or bodily fluids of a person with Ebola, you probably know that you’re doing it.

None of this should be news to anybody who’s been reading about the actual Ebola outbreak, but a re-articulation of those ideas can’t hurt.

Now that you have (hopefully) removed your respiratory infection control mask, here’s my advice: every time you catch yourself thinking about Ebola becoming the next great pandemic, donate some cash to the people who are actually putting themselves in harm’s way to contain it. I suggest giving to Direct Relief. That way, you know that your unfounded fear is at least productive.

Me? I’m going to get back to writing about AIDS now.

“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.

Dear Diary

One of the key takeaways from my most recent research trip—a non-unique one, I’ll admit—was realizing how important it is to keep personal records.

In the course of two days I read approximately six years’ worth of film scholar and AIDS activist Vito Russo’s life. How much of it do I anticipate will make it into my dissertation? Frankly, not all that much.

Vito Russo

The ten-ish hours I spent pouring through Russo’s journals were nevertheless some of the most valuable that I’ve logged in my career thus far. Historians use primary and secondary sources in their work, but we also use intuition, emotion, and other intangibles we can’t fully account for in our footnotes (whether we like it or not). Russo’s journals steeped me in the ethos of the AIDS crisis in a unique way, and it’s left an imprint on both my mind and my heart that I know will follow me throughout the research process.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read somebody’s personal remembrances in an archival setting—every single time I do, though, I find myself sitting there wondering why there aren’t more historians in the world. It’s just so cool. The “intimate connections” that happen in the archive are a huge part of the reason I’m motivated to do this kind of work, and every time I encounter another life on paper, I start thinking about journaling, and the fact that I suck at it.

I am notorious for buying—nay, collecting—fancy notebooks in which I intend to write my life story, only to decide that writing in them would be a desecration. If I actually do write in them, I immediately re-read the content I’ve created and criticize everything from my handwriting to my sentence structure. In so doing, I determine that I’m the biggest jerk on the planet and who the hell would want to read about my life anyway so why don’t I just not and say I did? It’s intense.

At least, it was. I’ve been on the journaling wagon for a whopping six days now, and am happy to say that I think it’s going quite well.

There are two reasons I think I might be able to turn journaling into a habit this time around:

  1. I’m writing with a different goal in mind.
  2. I’ve changed the process by which I write a journal entry.

The former is largely a result of engaging with Vito Russo’s personal writing. I’m eventually going to devote an entire post to his journals, but for now I’ll just say this: while Russo a heroic figure in both LGBT and HIV advocacy, his journals reveal all of his deepest flaws. Every once in a while he’d write something that stopped me in my tracks, because it was so self-centered, or whiny, or arrogant, or etc. etc. etc. That was awesome. The stars, they’re just like us!

I used to imagine my great great grandchildren reading my journals and telling all their friends about what a great woman I was. After reading through Russo’s journals, though, I now imagine them gathering together to talk about the myriad ways in which I was kind of a jerk. We love the people we love not just despite their flaws, but because of them. This realization has helped me to stop worrying about the quality of what I put on the page.

My new technique for journal writing has helped me in this quest to uncensor myself, but there’s still the issue of carving out time to write yet another thing. Taking a cue from Greg McKeown, who advises that you should always write less than you’d like to, I decided that I would only allow myself to write for ten minutes. Can I plumb the depths of my soul in ten minutes? No. Can I give a basic account of my day and how I felt about it? Yeah. I certainly can’t claim that my journal has a wonderful voice, as it’s comprised of lots of super abbreviated sentences, but who cares? Writing is both my hobby and my job. If my great great grandchildren swing a dead cat and somehow don’t find my blog posts, articles, and (fingers crossed) dissertation, they just need a bigger dead cat.

Do you journal? Any suggestions for getting started/sticking with it?

“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.

What I’m Learning From A Giant Stack of Obituaries

This week of archival work has left me with a lot to process, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s going to take a long time to sort through everything that I found, both in the archives and within myself. Especially after reading other people’s diaries all day long, I feel a strong urge to follow in their footsteps, so if you aren’t into navel-gazing, you may want to skip this entry. Actually, just skip the whole blog.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

One of the two lions that greet you at the New York Public Library. Click image to see the website the image came from.

As I mentioned in a previous post, you never know what you’re going to find when you do archival work. I went to the NYPL specifically looking for information about ACT UP’s political funerals, and I found surprisingly little on them. What I didn’t expect to find—or, more accurately, didn’t expect to spend much time or energy on—was obituaries, the vast majority of which were not published in newspapers.

Turns out, I’m bringing home hundreds of them. They don’t fit neatly into my dissertation as originally conceived, so I suspect they are going to become the foundation of a separate journal article. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to rationalize spending a full day (and a lot of my own money) printing obituaries I may never use.

I’m increasingly unconvinced of, and borderline hostile to, the idea that there is a boundary between the personal and the professional, and this trip—these obituaries—added a new dimension to my argument. Yes, these are incredible sources, and I think they’ve been underused. They are fascinating to me, and I think my work will benefit from analyzing them, but the fact is, I didn’t need to print every obituary in the archive. Examples would have been sufficient, but no, I just had to print them all.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

Have a giant stack of obituaries. I promise this will be the most boring picture I ever post.

I could marshal up an argument that I need all the available evidence blah blah blah, but the fact is, there’s just something about these obituaries. They’re pieces of paper printed from microfilm, and the images are all far too blurry to use in an article, but they radiate pain and grief in a way that’s hard to describe. You have to hold them in your hands yourself. The truth is, I printed every obituary because I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

There’s nothing I can do for the men and women whose obituaries I’m flying home with—I have no illusions that my work will bring them back to life, or change the way we remember (or, in far too many cases, don’t remember) them. I’m completely aware that I only have access to the obits somebody cared enough to preserve, that there are thousands upon thousands of folks who died of AIDS during the same time period, in the exact same city, that didn’t get memorialized on microfilm. I know I’m nobody’s hero, and I like to think that I’m not in the business of writing recovery narratives (think “golden moment” history). Still. It’s about respect.

Historians have feelings, and this week has been a somber one for me. That’s a good thing. I study a horrendous moment in American history, and I chose perhaps the most depressing and gruesome aspect of that moment (the political uses of the dying and dead PWA body). Sometimes I worry that I must be seven different kinds of crazy to even be interested in such a morbid topic, and I frequently worry that there’s something borderline inhumane about being so fascinated by the topic. Trips like this one are important for me, because they remind me that I do in fact find this subject matter deeply upsetting.

I didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can’t get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

That’s part of the reason I reject the personal/professional binary. Certainly there are those out there who claim to be “objective,” who pride themselves on their knack for dispassionate narratives, but theirs are never the books I enjoy reading. I want to read books by historians who care deeply about their subject, who respond viscerally to their sources, who are motivated by something greater than mere curiosity. You don’t need an extended autobiographical forward to know when somebody’s truly dedicated to their topic. That kind of passion leaps off the page. I want my words to leap off the page too, even though I know it’s going to make my academic AND personal life much more complicated. Making my word leap off the page means confronting death in a way I never anticipated, in a way that is equal parts gloomy and terrifying.

This wasn’t the plan going into graduate school.

So I’m bizarrely thrilled by my expensive collection of obituaries, because it is a tangible reminder that analytical distance is a choice I can make, not a facet of my personality. I’m leaving New York ecstatic about being sad, because it means that I have the heart to write this story. If I wasn’t feeling this way, I suspect it’d mean I was evil, a robot… or both.

I may still be an evil robot, but if I am, I’m an evil robot that’s been programmed to never leave anybody behind.

The Six Million Dollar Scholar Makes Her Broadway Debut, Part One: “The Book of Mormon”

Hello, my name is The Six Million Dollar Scholar, and I would like to share with you this most amazing playbill.

Hello, my name is The Six Million Dollar Scholar, and I would like to share with you this most amazing playbill.

That title is the closest I’ll ever get to appearing on Broadway, so humor me. I’ve been coming to New York City for years and years, but somehow I’ve never seen a show. I’ve seen Broadway shows in North Carolina and Philadelphia, but had always heard that it’s just not the same as seeing them on the Great White Way. My mother—living saint that she is—decided that it’s time we did something about it.

On Tuesday, my first full day in the city—I spent approximately three hours collecting obituaries. It was, as one might expect, a total bummer. As much as I love studying HIV/AIDS, it does take a toll. It really did help knowing that I wasn’t going to just go back to my hotel and brood. No, I was going to spend the night laughing my ass off at “The Book of Mormon.”

I made a choice not to do my homework in preparation for this show. The premise of the show makes me uncomfortable, but I’d heard it was the funniest show on Broadway, and it’s passed the sniff test of several critical thinkers that I have the privilege of calling my friends. I wanted to see how the show hit me, and there’s really only one way to make that happen.

So, the following is my personal opinion of and meditation on the show. It’s been twenty four hours. There’s nothing I can possibly say about the show that’s more profound than what’s already been written by other people. Still.

Nic Rouleau and Ben Platt, the two HUGELY talented stars of "The Book of Mormon." Most of the pictures on the net are of the original cast, but I can't imagine anyone being better than these two were.

Nic Rouleau and Ben Platt, the two HUGELY talented stars of “The Book of Mormon.” Most of the pictures on the net are of the original cast, but I can’t imagine anyone being better than these two were.

Let’s get one thing out of the way now: this show is really beautifully written and performed. I am in awe of the men and women I saw on that stage, and have nothing but respect for each and every one of them. Their art needs to be considered a thing in itself, and there is no need for meditation there. This is hands-down one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and if I had the time, money, and social graces to take every member of the cast out to lunch, I totally would. They put on one a hell of a show.

“The Book of Mormon” is also a show that I can 100% understand my Mormon friends despising. That having been said, the structure of the show is such that any religion that promotes proselytizing could fit squarely in its crosshairs. Mormonism drew the short straw, but the abuse it takes is not nearly as heinous as I’d anticipated. The play mocks details of the faith, but ultimately looks beyond them to highlight all that is good about having faith. It’s a show that, in a hilariously roundabout way, demonstrates that anything is possible when you tap into a higher power, even if that higher power is a hobbit. It does, however, accomplish that at the expense of a major religion, and I appreciate that many a Mormon would find this play hurtful.

My other major concern going into the show was the fact that two white guys sat down and wrote a musical set in Uganda. I was expecting a lot of cheap-shot racial humor, and to a certain extent I got it. The African characters in this play are a bit two dimensional, and a huge portion of the plot is dependent upon their naiveté and lemming-like willingness to adopt (a creatively edited version of) Mormonism. However, I came away from the show feeling okay about the way people of color are represented, because—no spoilers—the writing is designed to make the audience “realize” the complexity of the African characters right alongside our two white protagonists. This enables a critique of neoliberal racism and global capitalism that might not otherwise translate to a broad audience.

All of this is to say that I agree with Sayantani DasGupta, who wrote in “The Feminist Wire” that “The Book of Mormon,” for being outrageous and frequently offensive, is doing important—and brilliantly subtle—cultural work. She writes that:

Ultimately, the subversive strength of the play is this: it is a powerful, and (if ticket sales are anything to go by) effective example of white people talking to white people about anti-racist social justice. By this I don’t mean the musical pulls any punches, or talks about anti-racism in a way that ‘doesn’t offend’ white people. Rather, I believe that it engages in a sort of neo-liberal self-critique that can only come from a position of ‘insider.’

The risk with a musical like this, of course, is that not every audience member is going to be able to see—for example—that the discussion of cliterodectomy is brilliantly executed. DasGupta mentions this too: in the midst of cheap laughs, we see an outright refusal to refer to the practice as “mutilation,” African men advocating for women’s sexual autonomy, and a strong challenge to the East/West universalist/particularist binaries of 21st century feminist thought. That said, the average audience member is just going to be laughing because… you know… clitoris. But hasn’t that always been true about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s comedy? (Side note: if you haven’t seen 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, get thee to thy Netflix. It’s mind-blowing.)

The_Book_of_Mormon_posterLike South Park, I suspect that “The Book of Mormon” has and will to continue to fly over the heads of many people, and to a certain extent I can understand the point of view that that risk associated with this brand of humor outweighs its rewards. But I believe in taking risks, and I believe that with every show “The Book of Mormon” is engaging at least a few privileged young people who love volunteer tourism, don’t believe ours is an imperialist country, and quiver at the thought of “anti-racist social justice.” These folks might not realize they’re laughing at themselves, but they are. This show may only open their minds for a couple of hours, but that’s something.

Or maybe I’m full of it. I don’t know. Fact is, I love and support musical theater, and I would have an exceedingly hard time tearing down a show that’s so expertly constructed and performed. It’s also hard to dump on a play that made me laugh out loud about AIDS after a day spent reading obituaries. Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I honestly don’t think so.

So yes, “The Book of Mormon” is definitely not for the easily offended, and only for the most lighthearted of LDS folks (like, maybe 1% of you), but it is a wonderful show. You should chop off an arm and a leg (it’s that expensive) and go see it, if only to jump onto my comments page and tell me how wrong I am, and how much you miss the aforementioned limbs.


“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.


The Return of the Jedi (NYPL Edition)

I can't be the only person who thinks the movie would be better if it was all about research librarians, right? Truth be told, I'm a Trekkie. Click for link to the image.

I can’t be the only person who thinks the movie would be better if it was all about research librarians, right? Truth be told, I’m a Trekkie. Click for link to the image.

Apologies for the (almost) two day long radio silence. I honestly believe that time moves more quickly in New York City, and—“rebel” that I am—I respond by becoming a tired, slower version of myself. I was born in New York State, but did most of my growing up in North Carolina, and I imagine the resulting conflict is as biological as it is cultural. But anyway.

I haven’t spent much time in the archives yet, but Ihave seen enough to tell you that this trip is teaching me a very valuable lesson. It sounds silly for an historian to say this, but I’m learning not to underestimate the importance of time. A lot can happen in a year.

I was in these exact same archives last August, and—after a solid week of searching—walked away with nothing but doubt. I wasn’t seeing anything in the archive that proved or disproved the theory I’d been working with, and a personal friend and former member of ACT UP made it inescapably clear that I probably wasn’t going to find what I was looking for. Instead of seeing the situation for what it was, I gritted my teeth and flew back to California, determined to make something out of nothing. Hardcore denial.

That’s not the way I usually operate. For better (and occasionally for worse), I’m very calculating when it comes to my scholarship. I don’t waste time. If my archive gives me lemons, I normally cut my losses, make lemonade, and run to the next topic as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, my trip to New York happened mere days after a major family trauma, one I continue to deal with even now. I found myself in New York City, hundreds of miles away from home, brokenhearted and recovering from a horrendous cold. I had not yet embraced the idea that therapy can be a form of preventative care, so I hadn’t established a relationship with a counselor. I was a mess. Growing up, my scholarship was my shield; whenever something bad happened, I put my head in a book and thought the trouble away. Even if the world was falling down around me, I could always count on my brain, until last August. I’d hit a dead end in my research, but I simply couldn’t accept it, because it made me feel like a failure. Clearheaded, historian Andrea knows that dead ends are a natural and productive part of the research process, but in my grief and exhaustion, the worst case scenario prevailed.

The aforementioned denial delayed the inevitable, but I did eventually give up on my dissertation project. It was the hardest choice I’ve ever made as a scholar, but when I finally told my committee that I would not be writing the dissertation that I’d defended mere weeks previous, I felt about fifty pounds lighter. Once I opened myself up to new and interesting ideas, they came quickly. The ideas came so quickly, in fact, that a five minute conversation with one of my committee members spawned a whole new dissertation project, one that I still wake up every day excited to work on.

Even though I knew I was here to research a different topic, I must admit there was a part of me the dreaded coming back. What if the archive disappointed me again? I named my blog the freakin’ Six Million Dollar Scholar, and it wasn’t intended to be ironic. What if my triumphant return to the New York Public Library was a bust?

Good news folks: I don’t have to answer that question. Thus far, the archives have been incredibly good to me. Within a few hours of arriving at the archive, I’d filled all the folders I arrived with. That means I’ve found more in a couple hours this time around than I found in a week last year. I had tremendous faith in my new dissertation topic going into this trip, but all the evidence I’m collecting now tells me that—in addition to finding a project that has the potential to be awesome—I’ve “tapped a vein” in the archive that will continue to serve me well long after the dissertation is over.

In future posts I’ll actually discuss some of the incredible things I’m seeing, but for now I just wanted to revel in the fact that the same place that made me question my intellectual worth a year ago is validating me now.

What a difference a year can make.

“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.

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.

I’ve Been Published… Again!

Yesterday was a whirlwind of the best sort, and today promises to be better still. I woke up to the horrible news about Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and—like havers of ovaries everywhere—spent a good bit of time pacing about being righteously indignant. After reading dozens of different articles and Facebook posts, I’d more or less memorized the refrain: “Corporations are people, unfertilized eggs are people, women are not people.” It’s depressingly true, and strangely poetic, but I felt like something was missing.

Something was missing. This ruling indeed impacts everybody, but it has the potential to do unique harm in the realm of HIV treatment and prevention. Nobody seemed to be writing about it. So, blurry eyed, un-showered, nightgown-clad me sat down for two or three hours, and banged out my best explanation of why—as a scholar of HIV/AIDS advocacy—I consider Burwell v. Hobby Lobby to be such a dangerous ruling. And then I sent it out, fingers crossed.

And this happened!


Pictures or it didn’t happen! Click this image to see the article in all it’s glory!

For those of you not already familiar with Nursing Clio, here’s their mission statement (you’ll quickly understand why I—given my interests and aspirations—love this blog):

Nursing Clio is an open access, peer-reviewed, collaborative blog project that ties historical scholarship to present-day issues related to gender and medicine. Men’s and women’s bodies, their reproductive rights, and their healthcare are often at the center of social, cultural, and political debates. Our tagline – The Personal is Historical – is meant to convey that the issues that dominate today’s headlines are, in fact, ongoing dialogues that reach far back into our country’s past.

The mission of Nursing Clio is to provide a platform for historians, health care workers, community activists, students, and the public at large to engage in socio-political and cultural critiques of this ongoing and historical dialogue regarding the gendered body, the history of medicine, popular culture, current events, and other issues that catch our attention. Nursing Clio provides a coherent, intelligent, informative, and fun historical source for the consideration of these topics.

These folks—with ninja-like speed—peer reviewed my piece, edited it, sexified it with wonderful images, and BOOM, threw it up on the Internet.

And now I’m famous. Or something.

If you haven’t read the article already please do, and share it with friends, neighbors, colleagues, random strangers… anybody! I want this article to do as much for Nursing Clio as they did for me. That having been said, even if nobody ever reads the article, I can file this away as a victory, because I channeled my inner Six Million Dollar Scholar, and made something happen for myself.

All in a day’s work.


“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.