Well! Yesterday’s post on Planning a Research Year got a little bit of traction, which also gave me a bit of material to work with for a second part right away.
More than one Tweep made a comment about something I wrote that I hadn’t even thought twice about when I wrote it:
A word of warning on archivists saying they have nothing about your topic: my very first day at a new-to-me (large) archive the archivist told me straight up “you won’t find anything” when I explained my research topic. I stayed. They were wrong. Very, very wrong.
— Juneisy Quintana Hawkins (@JuneHawk20) July 18, 2019
She’s right, y’all. My bad.
First off, let me explain what in the world I was thinking when I wrote this:
I had one archive tell me point blank that they had nothing useful for me — disappointing, but far less disappointing that it would have been had I spend time and money going out there to get the same answer.
This happened, and I have no reason to suspect the archivists were lying to me. That said, the reason I feel comfortable saying this is that the archive in question belongs to an organization that was founded during my research period, and seemed, from its website and catalog, to only hold the international organizational files, whereas what I really wanted was reports from the Egyptian branch.
Knowing this to be the case, I reached out by e-mail to ask if they had anything from my target dates pertaining to the eastern Mediterranean region, and they responded that they did not. It was the answer I somewhat expected, confirmed.
That said, Ms. Hawkins is absolutely correct, especially when it comes to larger archives. The archivists at smaller, specialized institution know their collections pretty well. However, at the U.S. or British (or French or so on) national archival collections, where the material is so vast and covers so much time and space temporally, the likelihood is that, unless they have specialized archivists covering your specific interest/time/place, you’ll be dealing with people who want to be helpful but may not necessarily have the familiarity to assist you with your specific search.
After she tweeted me, I immediately thought of a conversation I’d had at the help desk at the British National Archives, wherein I pointed out that I had correspondence from one side of a conversation, and asked where I might find the other half. The very well-meaning archivist thought for a second and then asked if I’d considered trying the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo, since colonial correspondence that was kept in former colonies usually got transferred to the national archives after independence.
She’s probably right. At the same time, travel to Egypt for research was impossible at the time, which is why I was in London in the first place, and not in Cairo.
In short, if your gut feeling is telling you that there might be something there that’s useful to you, especially if you’re still at the point where articulation of your project involves a lot of handwaving and drawing diagrams on napkins (guilty!), by all means follow your instinct.
For example, as someone whose project morphed from the history of epidemics to the social history of disease, I’d often have to clarify that I wasn’t looking for medical reports, which is what most people assumed I wanted. You are, ultimately, the judge of what constitutes “useful” in the context of your own research.
This is great! I’d add—1) try to learn the archival terminology in the language of your docs and the language of the country the archive’s in 2) touch base w anyone who has used the archives and get their up-to-date tips 3) find out about bribing/gifting customs.
— Sarah Zarrow (@SarahZarrow) July 17, 2019
Another excellent set of points from Dr. Zarrow.
The best advice is going to be from someone who has been there before.
Unfortunately, one of the best resources out there — the Archives Wiki that the American Historical Association used to run — has been taken down; a lot of it was out of date, but it did at least give a starting point on what to expect (helping a lot with number 2).
There was a short-lived project called World History Archives (I contributed several entries myself) but it seems to have been abandoned.
If you work on the Middle East or North Africa, Hazine is a good starting point.
The issue of <polite cough> “gifts” is one that you should be aware of. In smaller archives, in out of the way places, this is where having some recent local expertise is going to come in very handy.
I have heard, for example, stories about how flowers or the head curator’s favorite sweets from a particular bakery will start things off on a good note.
Remember that in a lot of places, the people who work at archives are going to be poorly paid public servants, and you’re asking them to do things for you. I don’t like using the word “bribe” here because it has such a negative connotation (if ‘gift giving’ becomes a daily practice, then we can call it bribery). Think of it as a token of your appreciation, expressed in advance.
I never got into the Egyptian National Archives to put any of that advice to practice, but in the days when I used to run study abroad programs in Egypt, my first visit on arrival in Cairo was usually to the supermarket near my hotel to pick up provisions–one of which was always a carton of Marlboro Red cigarettes. Each morning, I’d toss a few packs into my backpack and use them to earn the loyalty of our assigned tour guard, or help the door keeper at an out of the way museum suddenly remember where he left the key, and various and sundry things like that. (Cash can be so gauche to hand off in a crowd.)
Also…and this is key, especially for Americans who are seen as brash and rude…remember to start every conversation with a smile, a “Good morning. How are you?” before getting into what you need.
Every new person you talk to is a new person — a simple statement, really, but remember that even though you’ve told the same story sixteen times, you haven’t told it to this person. Patience is a virtue, often rewarded.
In another post, I will address another question that came up — how to reconcile all the funding applications with what you actually want to do during your research year. It’s not as complicated as you’re afraid it might be.