U.S. Intellectual History Blog

At the archives

Spent the week at the Howard University Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Some of the things I thought while sorting through the boxes, after the jump:


These diaries are rich with detail, yet not the exact detail I’m looking for. Why doesn’t she talk about what I want her to talk about? And yet they are so much better than what I’ve found before.

These diaries are taking forever. What if I don’t get through them and don’t get to the correspondence? Maybe I should skip a little bit to get to the correspondence.

These diaries are amazing. I don’t have time to transcribe them. Maybe I should copy them all. Will I get in trouble if I ask for them all to be copied? Maybe I’ll look through them and pick and choose what to copy.

Ok, I have to skip something so I can get to the correspondence. If the diaries are this good, the correspondence is going to be amazing.

Why must all this correspondence take place in the 1960s and 1970s, instead of the 1920s and 30s? Where are the letters from all the people she talked about in the diary?

Careful, careful, Precious documents here.

Hurry, hurry, not moving fast enough. I might not be able to see everything.

Why aren’t the people I want to be in the correspondence in the correspondence?

Maybe I should ask for the diaries back. But I want to see that other collection too.

Please, collection that wasn’t available during my dissertation writing phase, don’t have anything that overhauls my analysis completely.

Please, collection that wasn’t available during my dissertation writing phase, have something amazing that completely transforms how I was thinking about this subject.

Aaaaaargh, all of this correspondence is also from three decades past what I’m interested in!

Oooooh, love letters. Scrawly, handwritten love letters. Someone else should work on those later. I’ll make a note for future students.

No, wait, there’s some from the 40s. Now, how do I treat the 40s? The war makes such a nice break, but if there isn’t correspondence from the 20s-30s, maybe I should look at the 40s. It’s interesting how we decide what to look at. The other researchers in the room with me are each studying a single person, so they are trying to work through the whole collection of that one person. I study a generation of black intellectuals, particularly shared ideas and a shared social network. That has required searching through numerous collections, and not just for the people I already know, because I am trying to understand the network that surrounded each individual. So I limit the massive quantity of correspondence by date—1939 or earlier. Sometimes I peek at the 1940 and 1941 letters. Unfortunately, these three collections are weighed heavily toward the more established part of the individuals’ careers.

Ummmmm, let’s go back to those love letters and see if there is any information about the social network. Yep. These are the best letters in the collection for my part. And they satisfy that historian as gossip urge.

I know for a fact that Person A visited Persons B and C in London, so why aren’t there any letters from Person A to B or C? How frustrating. Oh, maybe they were such good friends that they landed in the partial name folder?

Nope.

Nope.

Nope, not that topic either.

So, for four days, I have diaries and I have love letters and a few scattered semi-helpful correspondence. Maybe today in the National Archives will be better. I have a very specific, tiny little needle I want to find in that massive haystack. Luckily, I got the ILL book with the most helpful citation yet the day before I left to come here.

And in four days, I have two new colleagues (a forced lunch is not good for the overachiever, but it is a nice way to meet your fellow researchers), many beautiful urban steps added to my shoes, and a flat tire.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I find it difficult to make that argument, because it is hard to distinguish between what was lost and what never existed. For most of my collections, it is more likely that something was not kept than that it never existed.

  2. Lauren, This IS a wonderful post. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything that better captures the beauties and internal dilemmas of the research process than this.

  3. Lauren: It’s like you were Tweeting from the archives. Funny. These two “tweets” hit closest to home for me:

    “Hurry, hurry, not moving fast enough. I might not be able to see everything.

    Why aren’t the people I want to be in the correspondence in the correspondence?”

    The hurry, hurry on my end was due to the fact that I was going through 130 record boxes (the big ones, not the little archive boxes) that had ~not~ yet been processed.

    As for the second thought, I was really, really, really hooked on Hollinger’s ‘community of discourse’ idea in that phase of my thinking (circa 2004-05). Actually, I’m still hooked on hit—just not possessed by it. – TL

  4. Lauren’s post evokes two contradictory reactions from me. The first is a sense that archival research can be incredibly fascinating and that finding what you weren’t looking for can be even more fruitful than finding what you were looking for. The second is that, alternatively, it can be incredibly damn frustrating as everything comes up or empty. (The (horror) stories I read from historians on H-France about the gymnastics required to use the French archives always make me cringe a little.)

    So I have to ask, what sort of odds does one have when working in archives? Do you have an even chance of getting what you’re looking for? One in five? And are those stories about accidental finds leading to inspiration really true? And in general does satisfaction outweigh frustration, or does it depend?

  5. @Lauren, I am also hesitant to make an argument from absence. I’m going to give it a try in my current project, but I have a sneaking suspicion that in my case it’s probably going to end up being an argument from ignorance. Time will tell!

  6. having been in the archives for a week myself (Nixon Lib), this is a great way to end my week! you forgot: “how long can i wait before peeing” and “just get through one more before you check your email”

  7. also, i will quote the archivist i spoke with today about where an attachment might be “well, if it was really important, i’d think it would be in there.” …

  8. @David: Thank you!

    @Tim: Thinking is sometimes like thinking aloud and sometimes like conversation. This is one of the reasons I get frustrated with people who say that twitter is somehow a less worthy kind of prose.

    @Varad: You’ve inspired the topic of another post. I have found amazingly wonderful sources in the archives. This one was tricky because I was looking to fill in gaps from previous trips.

    @LD: Good luck!

    @Lauren: exactly to the first and I doubt the second. 🙂

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