Archive Diving

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The Mary Baker Eddy Library and Christian Science Publishing Society building with the Mother Church in the foreground.

This is the last week of my research fellowship at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, which will mean that I have spent eight weeks total here in three years and still won’t have seen everything I want to see. 

When I started my dissertation project, I wasn’t particularly interested in doing primary research. My strengths, I thought, were interpretive. Furthermore, since I was doing work on a famously reclusive religious movement with which I had no “in,” I figured it wouldn’t be an option anyway. So, I structured my project so that I wouldn’t need to rely on primary documents in order to make it work.

Then, I found out that said religious organization had put their church archives in a pretty new library, and THEN I found out that they were handing out money to researchers who wanted to come to Boston for a few weeks in the summer, and I figured it beat a few weeks roasting away in Austin. I didn’t make my first trip until I had most of my dissertation already written, but the staggering collection I had no idea was awaiting me wound up transforming my project in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. Using files that no outside researcher had seen in thirty years, I debunked a century-old rumor about Willa Cather that has served as the basis for a segment of scholarship on her work (the article will finally be coming out this fall). And it presented new avenues of inquiry that made it clear that what I thought was only going to be a single dissertation chapter could become a career’s worth of work if I want to keep pursuing it. So I came back and even though the weather is uncomfortably Houston-like right now, I’m certainly not regretting it.

This is my way of saying to grad students out there that even if you don’t do textual studies or historicism or anything else that typically requires an archive, you should consider making a trip. Other perks:

1. They will totes pay you.

The big libraries (Huntington, Oxford, etc.) will, of course, pay you a lot and let you stay for a long time, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to see what small archives might have holdings relevant to their interests. Archives are meant to be used, and archivists are interested in attracting researchers who will make good use of and publicize their holdings. 

2. Travel

One of the pleasures of making these research trips has been the opportunity to spend extended time in a new place (and one of my favorite cities). It’s like getting paid to take vacation. 

3. Uninterrupted time to work

My first stint in Boston allowed me to finish my dissertation in a 30 day fugue state in which I worked six hours in the archives and then went back to my garret to write some more. This time around hasn’t been quite so manic, but productivity increases fairly sharply when you no longer have the distractions of home. Plus, you have a quiet space where you are required to go for a set amount of time to work on your stuff, not grading, not revising your syllabus. In seven years of graduate school, I found pretty much no other way to achieve this kind of focus, and it helped me develop good habits that have served me fairly well when it comes to turning out articles. 

My advice to graduate students writing proposals:

1. Make your proposal specific. If they have their finding aids online, go through them and figure out which items you think you want to look at. You can change your mind when you get there. Barring that, get in touch with an archivist and ask them if they have anything relevant to a particular aspect of your project. Specificity lets them know that you at least have a plan and won’t just flounder around and waste time when you get there.

2. Show them you understand your field. Most graduate students writing fellowship proposals are used to pitching their projects very broad, and that is perfectly appropriate if you are applying to a big general library like the Huntington. But if their holdings are fairly specific (as they were in this case), it’s helpful to be able to drop the most important names in that sub-field. For me, it meant showing that I had at least read the central texts and major academic historical treatments of this movement.

3. Tell them how you will publicize their work. Most archives are looking to get the word out or at least show that to their donors what their collections are generating. Whether it’s a chapter or a conference paper, suggest how you might present the research you do there to an audience of your peers. 

 

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