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 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.