Implicitly Learned: Archival Research

A while back, as part of my minor field readings in History and New Media, I was tasked with creating an interactive story related to historical thinking, the process of archival research, or a historical topic you have researched. I produced a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” wherein the adventure is visiting an archives. Although I had originally intended it to be about what tools a historian might choose to use in the archives, I had a sort of aha moment when I had to pick where to start the story: a visit to an archives starts before you ever walk in the door.

For those of us who research regularly, this is a given. Yet I do not recall anyone explicitly teaching me how to go to an archives. My Masters program included visits to the major repositories in Edinburgh and in each of those locations the staff member explained whatever unique system the institution had, but I did archival research as an undergrad, spending hours in front of microfilm in the New York Public Library. Somewhere along the way, possibly by trial and error, I figured out that you have to check for opening hours, for policies on what you can and cannot bring with you, and all the other steps which by now seem routine.

Since that readings course, I have wondered whether there are degree programs, at any level, which explicitly teach their students about the complexities of archival research. I have, in fact, been meaning to write a version of this blog post for the last eighteen months. Then I received an email from the director of my doctoral program asking me and a few other PhD students and candidates to speak at the first doctoral colloquium of the Spring 2015 semester about doing research in archives, specifically archives far afield. One of my fellow speakers conducted research in South Africa, another received a fellowship to spend a few weeks in California, and I have my experience with the archives in Liverpool.

I don’t know what they’re going to say. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to say. I have a number of stories about Liverpool, including the surprise invitation for a second day of research at a private library and the archives which closed its website when the building was under renovation. I may not have time to share the details, but I think I can distill what I’ve learned:

Do as much research as you can before hand. Know what you can and cannot bring with you. Try to find out what you want to look at first, whether a specific item from a digitally-available finding aid or a general hope of a kind of record from vague hints online. Whenever possible, make contact before you go. Be prepared for unexpected opportunities, build flexibility into your research schedule. If the archivists ask you to join them for tea, be open to accepting (they might have delicious tea biscuits).

Enjoying Austen

I have now a very nice little collection of DVDs of various Jane Austen stories, as well as most of her novels downloaded on my iPad for frequent reading. I never really read Austen until I was in my MSc programme, although I think I’d watched a bit of the Firth/Elhe Pride and Prejudice. It was my professor (who supervised my thesis work) who, in my mind, introduced me to the delights of Jane Austen.

Dr. Nenadic assigned Persuasion as one of the readings for the week we talked about shopping, specifically for the scenes where Anne and her family are shopping in Bath. Persuasion is now my very favourite of Austen’s novels. What’s more, through the course I understood why it was so dreadful that Mr. Darcy refused to dance, why the Bennet’s behaviour was so dreadful, and that visiting the country homes of wealthy gentlemen when they were away wasn’t a quirk but rather an accepted practice. The joy I feel in reading or watching Jane Austen lies in the fact that I first met her as a source of historical information, of the ins and outs of the daily life of her era. It is a brief visit to the era I study.

(I wrote this as I was watching one of the Pride and Prejudice adaptations, which would be why all the examples are from that story)

Lev Manovich, Databases, and Me

This week’s assigned reading was Lev Manovich The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press, 2001).

I suspect I might have gotten more out of parts of this book if I had a better grounding in film/cinematic theory, or in art theory at least. There were digressions which were opaque – luckily they didn’t obscure the overall message(s) Manovich wanted to convey. The whole work is rich for discussion, but I only want to talk about the section on databases.

Why? I’m a database fan. Manovich argues that cataloging and narration are “two basic creative impulses” dating all the way back to the Greeks, and I agree.(233) I understand the desire to categorize, to sort, but also the need to tell a story about what you’ve sorted out. In some ways, that’s what writing history is – sifting out and distilling sources, and then telling the story which comes from combining those distillations. Thus, I think the section on databases can be of great use to the digital historian.

Some of the points Manovich makes in this section are ones we’ve heard already in the semester: organizing a database is a way to make an argument; a narrative is only one of multiple ways to access the contents of a database; “creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database”.(226) The examples he provides to support these arguments are helpful, particularly the lyrical paragraph on page 243, the end of the section, where he describes how Vertov’s film is an argument, a meaningful use of effects and sources – “Vertov’s goal is to seduce us into his way of seeing and thinking.” Vertov, we are told, successfully merges the database and the narrative into a new form.

The act of merging database and narrative, or at least smoothly joining the two, is one of the challenges of digital history. As Manovich points out, databases underlie most of the structure of digital projects. When we build an online exhibit or narrative, we build a collection of sources, whether or not we chose to make those sources accessible beyond the narrative we construct for the visitor/user. If we do, there is the chance they will only engage in the categorization, not the narrative. I think that’s okay.

In fact, I think exposing the work is an important benefit of digital history. Not in a rough way, necessarily – to use a textile metaphor, you want to finish your seams, not leave raw edges. Still, showing some of the process can be energizing for the creator as well as the viewer. Earlier in the book, Manovich mentions how Brecht experimented with meta-theatricality, exposing the work of a production to the audience; having worked as tech for a production of Caucasian Chalk Circle, I can attest to how exciting and exposed this technique can feel.

If we expose the work of selection and how we go from collection to narrative, I think it can not only strengthen the understanding of the narrative, but helps to reinforce the notion that simply creating a collection is, in itself, an argument. For ourselves (digital historians), we should make sure that we understand what our process is in making those choices, not just what records we create but what fields we capture. It is part of our method, our argument, and worth consideration.

As a coda of sorts, Jean Bauer has an essay in the open-reviewed work Writing History in the Digital Age about the interplay between a historical database and writing narrative history.

Draft Grant Proposal: Questions

What is your inquiry question? What happened during the British capture of Washington in August 1814, and where?

What do you want your users to learn? The impact, physical and psychological, of the British capture and destruction of Washington in August 1814.

What is your methodological stance? The exhibit takes a spatial social history approach, seeking to tie each source or object to the exact location which provides its relevance to the events of the burning of Washington. Images which show the extent of the damage, first-person primary source narratives, and recognizable objects will help create points of connection for general public users; hopefully this will be felt even more strongly when they are in the location where these events took place.

How does your design work to support these goals? The design of the site is arranged spatially, with options out from each place to explore the narratives and objects associated with it. The mobile/multi-platform design means that people can browse the exhibit and the archives while sharing the historical location.

What new things do you need to learn? Best practices for using Omeka, how to build an Omeka plug-in.

How will you go about learning these things? Best practices for Omeka can be learned by example and also by reading the extensive documentation. Building a plug-in starts at documentation, but I will probably also seek help from people who have built a plugin before.

What is the rationale for the decisions you’re making about source choices (by type, collection, time period, etc.)? In the documentary sources, I want as much as possible for the voices of the people present to be heard. I am selecting diaries and letters primarily, although also including some newspapers and memoirs (partly because there is a memoir by an enslaved person who was present, and I want to include all possible voices). For images and objects, the goal is period pieces, to preserve the historic moment. I have to make some leeway for prints, because they take time to produce, but the objective is to collect as much immediate impact as possible. The locations I select by their prominence – likelihood that someone will be in the vicinity – but also purely by documentation. The more documentation on a site which was or was not burned, the more likely it is to be included.

What questions remain for you to provide a convincing grant application? I think I need to more fully address the work plan, or at least convey the work involved in selecting sources/material and building the plug-in. I need to find a way to really emphasize the mobile/multiplatform aspect, as well.