…or how to hack your summer archives trip and come off victorious.
This post grew out of a conversation I had with fellow JI-er Christopher Jones during one of his lengthy jaunts around the Atlantic seaboard during his summer dissertation research. I have the good fortune to be located not too far from the American Antiquarian Society and could offer him room & board during his research trip there, and since I didn’t set foot inside an archives all summer I was living vicariously through everyone else’s treasure-hunting. We got to talking about archival research method: how we historians actually do what we do inside the archives, and reflecting on how we all get very little graduate-level instruction on the nitty-gritty of how to do this, and how it might benefit our JI community to have a broader conversation about it.
As my contribution I’d like to highlight the exemplary work of a colleague of mine, Shane Landrum (@cliotropic), who is finishing his PhD at Brandeis while teaching at Florida International University. His dissertation looks at the history of birth certificates and birth registration which has taken him pretty deep into the records of the United States Childrens’ Bureau and other Progressive-era bureaucracies. Think reams and reams of reports and documentation. Shane’s not only a whiz at digital methods for historical research but also extraordinarily generous in making his process transparent. I got a taste of his techniques in a talk for a 2010 grad conference at Yale, “The Past’s Digital Presence” (here’s the online version of his talk from that session). He uses Omeka to publish some of the best of his (public domain) finds and has posted at some length about the tools and programs that have honed his approach to the research trip. Because of that talk I also invested in a monopod for my digital camera which makes photographing documents (when permitted) a lot easier and with much better quality than hand-held … a mini-version of the fabulous piece of equipment that AAS conservator was using in the above photo. He’s also got great advice for what to do with all those digital images as far as naming conventions, database organization, tagging and retrieval for later use, etc. It’s also been a topic, not surprisingly, at various THATCamps – see for example Miriam Posner’s 2011 post “Batch-Processing Photos from Your Archival Trip” that grew out of a THATCamp Southeast session that discusses using Hazel (for Mac), PDF-OCR software (which has come a long way but still ain’t perfect) and Zotero.
I also suspect that we have a lot of collective wisdom in the JI community of contributors and readers. So please, don’t be shy about sharing your techniques, ideas, or frustrations with how to manage archival research – especially during the time-compressed trips that happen during the summer. My dissertation research (from the mid-1990s, sigh) lives in 3 boxes of overstuffed binders in the attic, mainly copied by archival staff at my request at something like $0.25 per page, and nearly completely inaccessible even by ME. Surely there’s a better way in this century! Let’s talk about it. Go.