Archival research is like a box of chocolates…

… You never know what you’re gonna get.

I just finished up the non-London portion of my trip, digitally pillaging the archives and libraries of Oxford (Bodleian) and Cambridge (University Library, Wren Library-Trinity College, Churchill Archives Centre-Churchill College). Fortunately all those online digital copies of published sources (and increasingly manuscripts) have made this a trip of surgical strikes – spend 5 hours at the Bod looking at 5 ms collections, 3 hours at the Cambridge University Library photographing four books, 5 minutes snapping one shot of a one-page pamphlet at Trinity (an hour once you add in transportation, finding the library, registration…)… So, much like diving in to a box of chocolates, here are my semi-random thoughts on the process that is short-term archival research.

Coordinating with my wife to schedule tourist-y events in between such archive visits is, as the title of the post implies, impossible. We probably scheduled one day too many in Oxford, which means one less day in London, but compared to the travails of pre-digital archival research, I really shouldn’t complain. Perhaps it’s the efficiency expert in me, but I like to plan things out in advance, and you can’t do that with archival research, beyond plus/minus a day. How long will it take to finish up at CAC? I have no idea – maybe 2 hours, maybe all day… Having two cellphones that work in a different country would be useful, but that’s for expert travelers.

Almost all archives have catalogs of some kind, but even for inventoried collections you rarely know exactly what content will be included in any given volume – like a box of chocolates (without the lid). You can often guess about the likely content based off the offices held by the author and recipient, as well as their relationship – much like the shape and texture of the candy. [Hey, this archive-as-box-of-chocolates metaphor actually works!] Part of effective archival research is mastering the emotional flights of fancy that make you imagine all sorts of tasty tidbits within a vaguely-cataloged volume – ooh, maybe this volume is scrumptious milk chocolate with a creamy caramel center! More often than not, however, you will be disappointed by the mundane trivia you find within the yellowed papers once you stare at them in the reading room – bleech, it’s just plain chocolate. This seems to be particularly true for ‘secondary’ characters, that’s probably why they’re only secondary characters in the first place. The catalog may say that this guy’s correspondence ranges from 1705 to 1710, but in reality 85% of the letters cover that single 1708 event in which he commanded. Which is good if you’re interested in that 1708 event, but if you don’t like Crunchy Frog… Like a box of chocolates, most papers in most archives are just plain chocolate.

90% of the time, the simple question “Did you find anything good in the archives today?” is a surprisingly difficult one to answer. You can usually identify a quote-worthy line, but other details only gain significance when combined with other documents, often drawn from completely different archives. In short, I’ll get back to you with an answer in two years, once I’ve combined all my sources together and figured out what I have too much of, and what I have in only a single source.

Much less can you guess how many documents might be found in that volume with the helpful description of “1 box” – heck, even a box of chocolates will tell you the number of pieces. And without that information, you have no idea how long it’ll take you to finish off the whole box, or whether you even want to. There might be 200 documents or 3 documents in a volume, but each one requires the same amount of time to fill out the order slip, await delivery, untie the bundle and then be either elated or disappointed with what you find within. And then you usually need to keep an eye out for how many requests you submit each day, since many archives limit the number of daily requests. Unlike chocolatiers, archives actually care how many pieces you eat at one sitting.

So I’ve adopted the following commonsensical strategies, in both chocolate and the archives. If you’re limited to a set number of items per day (and you want to look at or eat far more than what you’ll have time for), order one or two large-seeming items along with several short items each day, so that if your short items are really short (e.g. only a couple documents each), then you can spend more time on the bigger volumes rather than go home early – if the bigger volumes are too big, you can always hold it over until the next day.

When pressed for time, it usually makes sense to shoot first and then later on you can check to see if you already have those documents. (If you’d been willing to lug around your larger laptop, you could have searched your database to verify before the first shutter click, but sometimes you’ve only got 1 hour until you get kicked out of the archive, so you use the ‘better safe than sorry’ rule of thumb and madly let that shutter fly. Kind of like how you stuff your face with chocolates because you don’t know if they’ll run out.) Life is short, eat dessert first.

Things get even more complicated if you’re short on time but have some money. Then you need to prioritize, usually on the spot, whether something is so good that you don’t want to waste any more archive time but instead just get it copied, or eaten. Which then requires you to know exactly what the archive’s copying rules and price structure are, so you can ballpark how much it will cost to copy (not an easy thing I assure you), assuming you need to stick within a budget. One of my biggest regrets from my archive stint in the Netherlands is that I waited till the last day to order documents microfilmed. That morning I went to the ATM machine and was rudely informed that I could only withdraw X guilders per day (perhaps a fourth of what I had intended). Several years later, when I tried to order the rest of the documents, I was told that some were now too fragile to reproduce and others had quadrupled in price. Carpe diem. And, word to the wise, check to see if the archive will reproduce individual items within a volume before you meticulously read through and bookmark 59 documents spread throughout a 250-document volume. Don’t ask the chocolatier to sell you only the chocolate-coconut candies.

Another thing I didn’t experiment with till recently is to streamline photographing: using two copyright notices (one at the bottom of the recto side and another for the verso side as you flip pages over) so you don’t have to reposition your copyright notice slip for each shot; rotating your documents (rather than your camera) 90 degrees so you won’t need to crop the images later on; photographing two pages at a time if possible… The Internet is full of such advice (blogs particularly), but these are a few I’ve found most useful on this, my first significant research trip with a digital camera.

So spend a few minutes thinking about very short research trips, which are a very different type of chocolate from the giant Snickers bar of long-term research.

Any other useful suggestions for archive research?



2 responses to “Archival research is like a box of chocolates…”

  1. learnearnandreturn says :

    These are all good ideas. There are the obvious – a spare battery for the camera (which stopped me in my tracks once) and an extra memory card. I find it helps to download every evening to my iPad and cull there, before synching to the computer.
    I also find it’s important to keep a diary, and jot down ideas as they come. Back in the day when I had to transcribe (hand or laptop) from documents, I often had great ideas while my hands and brain were otherwise engaged. Now, with this frenetic pace of copying, it’s sometimes difficult to find headspace for those interesting thoughts that accompany the copying process. Jotting them down in a diary every evening really helps convert your raw material into something more.

    • jostwald says :

      Good ideas – I still have the slips of paper with my scrawls from 1997-98 that I still need to transfer to my notes database.

      On my dry run at the Society of the Cincinnati I had to rush out and buy an extra battery – but fortunately DC has its share of camera shops. I ended up taking about 900 photos over my few days in Cambridge and Oxford, so I only needed to swap batteries once, but better safe than sorry.

      I try to download the photos to the iPad in the reading room, to check the image quality before I leave.

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