The Research Year: Funding (or: how to reconcile what you said in your grant proposal with what you actually want to do)

Okay, I’m back! Easing into the Grad School Survival Guide, I want to address questions that have come from a couple of friends and readers who have asked some variant of the following question:

I wrote a grant proposal to work in a collection, and I said I was going to work on topic x, but now that I’ve been out and about and am starting to construct my dissertation, I realize it’s really going to be more about topic y. What should I do when I get to the archive?

Bearing in mind that the hard sciences work in a completely different manner, and that I am speaking to your average humanities/social sciences person here, and also assuming the “change in topic” you’re worried about is more akin to “I wanted to look at the history of medicine, but I realized I’m doing more of a social history through a medical lens” than “I was doing British History, but I’ve switched more to botany,” you can probably relax.

The fact is that, especially at the level of completing a doctoral thesis, what you actually produce is almost certainly never what you set out to write (mine sure wasn’t. And the project that I proposed in my application to the history program is now so embarrassing I can’t even bring myself to describe it). This happens to everyone. In fact, you should probably be worried if this doesn’t happen to some degree.

Funders are looking for assurances that their money isn’t going to be wasted by someone who wants to look at a handful of documents one morning and then spend the rest of their “archival visit” hanging with friends in New York City. That’s why they ask about your overall project, its research goals, and want to see what you think you’re going to find in the collection before you even get there.

And this is an important step in the process — I mean, I did once read a grant proposal wherein the applicant proposed working with material in a language they had never studied and gave no indication of otherwise being able to understand.

However, if your project is well-described, you have a reasonably academic approach to your topic, and you’re clear about why the research is important to achieving your goals, you’ll at least be in the running. Applications will be ranked, and maybe you might not make the cut, but you’ll be on the list instead of in the “Write back and ask if this applicant is pulling our leg” pile.

When it comes to most smaller grants, like those given by organizations to facilitate research in their collections, I’ve never heard of a funder pulling out someone’s grant narrative and saying, “You said you were going to work on [very narrow subtopic x] but you didn’t address it here, and we were so looking forward to reading your book when it comes out in ten years and we’ve all switched jobs and/or retired.” (Sorry, was that too on the nose?)

Anyone who’s worked with doctoral students will understand that research projects mature and change. It’s the nature of the beast.

Having said all of the above: Rule number one is: when in doubt, ask before you undertake your trip or start spending the grant money. It’s always better all around to be up front and honest.

If you’ve read the fine print and are thinking you may have to hide the fact that your project has morphed, you should contact the grant officer and discuss your concerns. You never know when you may need to work with a particular collection or organization again, and there’s no faster way to burn bridges and get yourself (and possibly your department or institution) blacklisted than misspending grant money.

 

Planning a Research Year: Part Two

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:

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.

 

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.

Next up

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.

Planning a Research Year

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide! Today’s topic is how to plan out a research year.

It probably won’t be as complete as some people would like, and it may go into details others don’t find helpful – the best way to figure these things out is to get advice from different people and see what works best for you.

So, here goes.map

Where to Go

Get out the map

You’ve probably identified the archives you want to visit, at least initially, and have a short (or possibly long) laundry list of cities you want to travel to.

One of your first questions is likely to be whether or not you want to do one big trip, or several small trips.

This is, obviously, going to depend on the level of funding you have and other considerations, like whether you’re keeping the lease on an apartment in your home base, or you’re going to be functionally homeless for a few months while traveling–these are all important considerations to bear in mind.

You’ll also probably want to maximize travel efficiency: see what cities are close to each other and cross several archive collections off at once. People from other parts of the country are usually surprised by how short travel distances in the American northeast are, for example. If you’re going to a new country you often have no concept of relative distances, Google maps is pretty good about showing distance in terms of travel times rather than as-the-crow-flies distances.

In general, both in the United States and elsewhere, flying to larger, busier airports is less expensive than flying into small, regional airports that have only a handful of flights in a given day, and/or are only served by one airline. For example: Cheyenne, Wyoming is less than a two hour drive from Denver International Airport, while Wilmington, Delaware is functionally a suburb of Philadelphia. If you’re likely to need to rent a car while you’re in town anyway, save some money on the flight and see a new part of the country.

If you’re going to be traveling internationally, you’ll also need to check things like the passport and visa situation for where you want to travel to (for example: US citizens don’t need a visa to visit the UK or the European countries that share a common border known as the Schengen zone–but, you can only stay in either for up to 180 days in any 365 day period, so if you’re planning to stay longer, you’ll either need to rethink the length of your stay or figure out how to get a visa for a longer stay. Also, if you’re drawing funds from a local research institution or organization, that may change the requirements, so make sure to check well in advance).

Where to stay: I’ve probably contributed to gentrification using Air BnB a few times, but it worked out less expensive than staying in a hotel or using a rental flat service. I also like cooking for myself, and that factored heavily into the equation. You might want to poke around on message boards, listserves, or as the advice of people who’ve been there — each location has its own quirks to learn.

There are other fiddly bits to take care of. For example, I encouraged you in the last post to plan out the workflow you’ll use to get documents into a form you can use later when you’re writing. Depending on where you’re going, you might run into issues with electrical outlets being shaped differently, or having different voltage. The US, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and much of Latin America use 110 volts AC, while most of the rest of the world’s electric current is 220-240 volts AC. Most computers, cameras, and electronics can handle either these days, but do check before you accidentally blow something up.

{Rant: Also, I don’t care what the travel guides say, Switzerland does have different plugs than the rest of continental Europe, and the ones that work elsewhere don’t fit Swiss outlets. Fortunately the Swiss are used to this and sell adapters pretty much everywhere.}

In short: do your research so that when you get to where you’re going, you can focus on doing your research.

Annotation 2019-07-17 151545

Archive Access

Spend some time looking up the various archives you want to visit and make note of what you’ll need to gain access to them. This can vary wildly, and it’s not always easy to gather everything at the last minute, or from a remote location.

It’s pretty common that you’ll need to produce photo ID when first registering at a new archival location. Within the US, for example, my driver’s license is usually enough. Internationally, however, the most useful and widely accepted ID is going to be your passport, not your home country driving license–although the latter is particularly useful (in addition to your passport) if you need to produce some sort of official documentation with your home address. Your university ID may also be needed to verify your institutional affiliation.

In addition to the type of ID you’ll need, pay attention to the number of forms of identification you’ll need to produce. I went to one archive that required three for some reason, which required me to go into the back of the closet and dig out that box where I keep important things that I only need to access once a decade or so.

Less common things I have been asked for include a letter of introduction. This is, essentially, a letter of verification from your home department at your university that says that you are who you say you are, that you are affiliated with them, and that you are legitimately conducting academic research toward completion of your doctoral or master’s degree. It is usually fairly critical that it be on letterhead and signed by someone who isn’t you.

It’s probably not a bad idea to write one up, have your advisor (either your dissertation advisor, or the department graduate advisor) sign it, and make a few copies before you set out on your research trip just in case (also, scan it so that you have an electronic copy that you can send by e-mail).

Pay close attention to when new users can register and where to go–registration hours for new researchers may be different than normal archival access hours; in my experience you’ll probably want to get there when they open.

Annotation 2019-07-17 151835

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

If you’re a young’un, you probably don’t recognize this subheading as AT&T’s slogan for the yellow pages, which used to be this actual physical book of phone numbers everyone had in their house before Google happened. The idea was that, instead of driving around from place to place to see if they had what you needed, you could save time by phoning from the rotary phone in your kitchen (which had a cord) to ask in advance before you left the house.

The idea is the same, even if we’re now in the era of the Internet.

Some archives allow you to register online in advance, which will save quite a bit of time when you arrive because your information will be already filled out and in the computer system. (This doesn’t always work; I did have a glitch once that had three tech people at the British Archives scratching their heads, although it did make me feel better to know it wasn’t just me.)

Some collections allow you to request items in advance online to have them waiting when you get there the next morning; this may not be an option for new researchers who haven’t yet arrived in person, but it’s worth checking. The British Library, for example, not only lets new users request items before they get their reader’s ticket (in American: library card)–but doing so lets you skip the part of the registration process where you describe your research interests.

Pay very close attention to the need to reserve a time slot at an archive. In my experience, archives that require reservations in advance are very strict about not allowing walk-ins.

Ideally you’ll want to have things sorted early, especially if international travel is involved, but I have contacted some archives with just a couple of days’ notice (“By any chance, might you have an opening…?”) when, for example, I found a file folder in one collection in London described the activities of an organization that seemed relevant to my research–and a quick online search revealed that the organization had its own archival holdings in another collection close by. (This is why having extra sets of documentation helps – you may think you’ve got a set list of everywhere you want to do research, but sometimes discoveries happen!)

Another reason to be in touch early (even if it’s optional), especially if an archive doesn’t have its holdings fully cataloged online, is to describe your project and determine whether there is useful material in the collection. Archivists often know their collections fairly well and this can help you decide how to allot the time you have.

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. Another archive, it turned out, had the files I was asking about digitized and just sent them to me electronically (the World Health Organization in Geneva).

The UN archives in Geneva, especially for the League of Nations period, doesn’t have the most useful online catalog; the archivists there are superb and pointed me in all sorts of directions I never would have considered otherwise.

In short, it never hurts to let someone know you’re coming. The worst thing they’ll say is “we don’t have anything that matches that”–which, while disappointing, is still useful information. If they do, they’ll almost certainly help you gain access if they can.

How Long?

Now. You may have noticed that the one thing I haven’t discussed is this: how long you’ll need to spend in a particular place or at a given archive. And, in short, this is because I can’t answer this question for you.

I would suggest that if you can, you take a few days and visit a collection to do exploratory research–my home department gave small sums of money for this, and I spent a week in London digging around.

The consideration of time is not just about how long it’ll take you to work with a file; it’s also about how long it takes files to be brought out to you, how long you’re able to work with them, whether the reading room closes for lunch, high tea, or something else, etc.

If you can bring a laptop or camera into the archive room, the process will go faster. If you have to transcribe everything on a pencil and pad, it’ll go slower. (Also pay attention to whether a ban on cameras extends to cell phones–some archives don’t like cameras because of the noise, but are okay with phones).

You’re probably going to want to get a sense of all of this before you book A Big Trip. (And, at the risk of repeating myself, it’s also a reason why you want to have your workflow established before you head out — you won’t want to be spending time in the archive itself trying to figure out how to take photos in low light, or realize that you need a cable you didn’t bring).

In general, having more time than you’ll think you’ll need is better than the opposite. It gives you more time with the material, and more time to follow leads to new collections you might not have considered visiting beforehand.

What else?

Update: This post generated a couple of important questions, which I’ve addressed here: Planning a Research Year: Part Two.

I have at least two more posts in this research year section planned, but what other questions do you have? Post in the comments below!

Grad School Survival Guide: The Mental Health Taboo

adult art conceptual dark
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s taken me longer to produce the next post in the grad school survival guide, and there’s a rather simple explanation that I posted about on Twitter.

So, there it is. A couple of weeks ago I realized I wasn’t okay, in the grand scheme of things, and that it was more than just me being bored.

What didn’t surprise me was the number of “Me too” responses I got. In fact, I was prompted to make this admission when a friend, Ian Morris, discussed his own bout with depression on a recent episode of the Abbasid History Podcast (it’s in the last three or four minutes of the episode). I figured if someone as brilliant as Ian could do it, I could too, and maybe if more of us say something, we can begin to normalize discussion about it.

Enough patting myself on the back.

The point, dear readers, is that mental health problems often present themselves in graduate school, and there is nowhere near enough discussion about it nor about what one should do. It’s time to change that.

The following post is not even close to a comprehensive listing of dos and don’ts, but random thoughts based on my own experience.

While mental health issues can hit at pretty much any time, they seem to cluster:

  1. At the beginning of your program
  2. Between the end of coursework and comprehensives
  3. After comprehensives
  4. After the dissertation defense.

What all four of these have in common is that they’re all major changes to the way your life is structured. The first usually involves trying to adjust to the change (especially if you’re returning to academia); the last three involve that feeling of drifting–when you’re going from a very structured, high pressure environment to having very little structure, pressure, or deadlines.

When you get to graduate school, assess the mental health services available to you.

It probably goes without saying that this is best done before you need such services, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that prepared. If you have the opportunity to assess these before you accept an offer of admission, even better (but, again, I’m not that on top of it. I actually thought my institution had a medical school when I enrolled. It doesn’t. Oops.)

Is there a student health center, and does it include mental health services? If there is not, what arrangements exist to address student needs?

Is there a student disabilities office, and if so, are mental disabilities included? (They should be, but policies differ from place to place). As an instructor, I have sent a number of students to the one on my campus because anxiety, depression, and test anxiety were all conditions that “counted,” so to speak.

If you’re a teaching assistant or assistant instructor, are you eligible to use your campus’s employee assistance program? This is a service that students often overlook because they don’t know that they’re eligible. If you’re employed by the university, an EAP can often help you find a counselor who accepts your insurance, which saves you a lot of extra research.

Avoiding Drift

There’s probably a better name for this, but it’s what I call that feeling when you’re suddenly on your own to read for comprehensives, or researching, or writing, and you’ve gone from meeting friends and colleagues on a regular basis with very little effort to being on your own, sometimes in a completely different city, without a support network.

During comprehensives and writing, if you’re stationed in your home base, a reading or writing group can help. Set up a regular meeting with friends or colleagues and discuss what you’ve been up to.

The caveat here is that this is likely to be most helpful if it’s more of a check-in with other people; if the way you’ve structured your group becomes something that requires you to do additional work above and beyond what you’re already doing, it quickly becomes an annoyance that you or your colleagues will start trying to avoid.

For that reason, I was pretty resistant to doing this during the writing stage–I work best on my own, and the idea of adding to my workload by agreeing to read others’ work and offer feedback on a regular basis was just a non-starter for me. If it works for you great, but, again, knowing your own working style will help a lot here.

And, if all else fails, a regular lunch or happy hour date once a week will get you out of your head for a bit. All work and no play only ever boosted Jack Nicholson’s career, and let’s face it: we ain’t Jack.

Self-care on the research year

I’ll discuss the details of my own research year in a forthcoming post, but let me offer the tl;dr version here: I had no funding and crammed it all into six weeks, and I absolutely exhausted myself mentally and physically. I had been in London for almost two weeks before I left my rented flat for a purpose other than going to the grocery or to an archive.

I cannot overemphasize this enough: do not do this to yourself.

While having a set schedule on research leave does help (get up at normal time, be at archives when they open, etc.), I did this six days a week–and that only because everything was closed on Sunday, or I would have done it seven days a week–and I failed to see the signs of burnout until I moved from London to Geneva and just couldn’t deal. I was only in Geneva for eight days … eight miserable days … but the change in routine, operating language (to French, which I can read but not speak), and the massive increase in the cost of everything caused a mental shock that I could barely deal with.

Part of the mistake here was the eight day bit. I wasn’t in Geneva long enough to really have the motivation to do much other than power through. Had I been there longer, I could have put in more effort to meeting people and getting out more. I’m an introvert, so that can be a bit difficult for me.

As it is, I have a very funny (to me) story about the Museum of the Reformation that I may share someday. (“The presentation on predestination is beginning. You don’t want to miss it!”)

If you’re on a fellowship provided by a local institution, you may well find yourself with a cohort of other fish out of water to form a social group with.

Don’t forget the existence of Meetup.org — need to find other expats? There’s probably a group for that.

But again, all work and no play … makes for a very lonely research experience. If you’re in a new place, remember to take time and smell the roses.

Be open and honest

This brings me around to the reason I posted about dealing with depression on Twitter in the first place: a lot of these battles happen behind closed doors, and there is a taboo around speaking about them.

Mental health resources were not discussed at my own graduate student orientation (either of them). It came up in conversation, and I only knew the answer because I was also a full time staff member.

Be open with yourself–this seems kind of self-explanatory, but, honestly, I didn’t really figure out what was going on until a few weeks ago. I’ve been in a funk since May; it’s now July. And, honestly, part of the issue is that my mental issues usually involve anxiety–depression is new, different, and weird to me.

Be open with those who need to know–your adviser (dissertation supervisor, if you’re at that level) should be in the loop.

If you’re still in coursework and don’t feel like having this conversation with multiple instructors, student disability services may be able to help–again, your situation may be different, but at the campus I’ve taught at, part of SDS’s job was to notify instructors formally of these things and we got a lot of training on confidentiality (‘Please do not approach the student in class and say, “SO! I hear you’re suffering from an STI!”‘)

And I’m pushing my own agenda here, but I really do feel like the more we talk about this, the more normalized it’ll become, and we can start moving away from the issue of mental health in graduate school being such a taboo subject.

 

The Research Year: Planning a Workflow

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide!

I have several posts envisioned detailed how to plan your research year, and I’ve decided to start with a couple of posts about what to do before you even leave home or set foot in your first archive.

(Full disclosure: This series will primarily discuss doing archival research; although what I say will be somewhat useful if you do oral history or other kinds of fieldwork, I won’t be targeting those specifically because I have pretty much no experience with them myself).

I’m writing these in no particular order and, in fact, I’m starting with workflow because a couple of friends are already working through this and I thought it would be most useful to them if I started here.

So.

What is a workflow, and why do you need to plan one?

Simply put, a workflow is how you go from this:

file1

to this:

Capture

It’s a bit difficult to see, but the PDF of the document in the top photo with the blue cover is digitally attached to the entry highlighted in the screenshot on the bottom.

(For the record, the top photo was taken at the British National Archives in Kew).

Now, you may be asking yourself: yes, but why do I have to figure this out in advance?

The most important reason to have a workflow figured out is this: you need to determine how you’re going to get those thousands of pages you find in an archive into a usable format and bring them home with you.

1. Photocopying is expensive. Even if it’s just 7 cents a page, if you wind up photocopying a thousand pages (which is *incredibly easy to do*), you’re going to spend some serious bank. Photocopies are also heavy and take up space in your luggage. And then, of course, there’s the question of what happens if they get wet, dropped, spilled, stolen (along with the rest of your luggage), torn, burnt, etc.

2. Photocopying takes time. A number of archives do not have self-service photocopy machines; they have copying services which will do it for you. This comes at both a monetary cost and a time cost, because unless the copyist is literally sitting around with nothing to do, you may not get the copies back the same day.

3. Okay, I’ll scan them. Sure thing! Except that scanning and photocopying are usually two halves of the same coin, performed by the same person at the same copy service that charges per page and probably won’t get to it as fast as you’d like or need.

I’ve been in a couple of dozen archival collections and I’ve seen exactly one with a self-scanner. It was located outside of the special collections room where the material I wanted to scan was kept, and I wasn’t allowed to take the material outside of the room.

4. Scanning has its own challenges. Also … even self-service scanning may not be free. There is a flatbed scanner at the Wellcome Collection in London, which is a research collection that I adore for its cheerful atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff, decently priced cafe with surprisingly good food, and bookstore that I can never get out of without dropping at least £20. In fact, I recommend that anyone passing through London whose research pertains in any way to science or medicine take a look (their catalog is online so you can see in advance what they have).

It is, in fact, the same flatbed scanner that my home university library has, with the same little port to plug in a USB device, and I was delighted to find this out became it meant I wouldn’t have to mess around and figure out how the machine works. I laid out my book, hit “scan” … and nothing happened.

That’s when I saw the little sign saying that there was a cost of £0.10 per scan.

In one of my few moments of actual frustration at Wellcome, I discovered that the cost of the scan has to be paid with a copy card, which can only be purchased in cash. American readers may not see the issue here, so let me clarify that the UK is well on its way to being an entirely cashless society. I had literally not been presented with a cash-only situation during my entire stay in the UK, save for the weekly food market behind Birkbeck College, which had huge signs at the entrance warning people and pointing them to the nearest cashpoint.

I had no cash on me, and as far as I was able to tell there wasn’t an ATM anywhere within the same block as the library. So … yeah.

So, how do I plan a workflow?

What it comes down to is this: you need to have a plan as to how you are going to capture the documents you want, store them securely, and annotate them (this is so, so important), and you need to be comfortable with both the hardware and software that you’ll be using before you leave the house for the first time.

Learning this all in the field wastes your time and money. Most of us are on some sort of research funds (I actually wasn’t–more about that in a future post), meaning that we need to produce while we’re there. Losing a day’s work because you took all of your photos at the wrong ISO and they came out so pixelated as to be unreadable is a risk you don’t want to run (even more if you don’t understand what I just said).

Plan your workflow by working backwards.

Start by asking yourself this question: when you are sitting at your computer writing your dissertation, how do you want to consult your documents? Are you envisioning them as multi-page PDFs with searchable text? As paper copies in front of you (as much as I just pooh-poohed the idea of photocopying, if that’s your thing and you have the funds to support it, go for it)? As something else?

I’ll stop asking you these questions and tell you my personal answer, but I want to emphasize again and again, as I have throughout this entire guide to grad school, that the most important thing is that you devise a system that feels natural to you and that you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to do it the way I did.

I wanted to have PDFs of the documents. I have to admit that I didn’t really think much more through it than that, which became something of an issue when I got to the British Archives and discovered that a file number could refer to a single piece of paper in a folio, or to two massive boxes bound together with twine. This is where creating bookmarks within PDFs became important.

The question for me then became how to capture the documents as digital images and get them into PDF form.

file
Camera, laptop, documents, iPad … check! Turns out this was a bad idea.

I originally did this using my digital camera–the British National Archives has camera mounts for stability–to capture images, which I then transferred to my laptop using Adobe Lightroom where I … you know what, I don’t even remember. I did this on a short research trip and the workflow of getting the images off my camera into Lightroom and thence into a PDF was so utterly cumbersome and time consuming that it literally took me three years to get everything processed.

See, I like to take photos and I know how to use Lightroom … for photos. As it turns out, I did not know the first thing about using Lightroom to create documents from photos.

This is why I insist that you try your workflow at home. Pull that copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire off the shelf and act like it’s a book you need to copy.

I wound up regrouping using a capture device I hadn’t taken seriously: my phone.

A friend pointed me in the direction of a scanner app — Scanner Pro (no, I don’t have this monetized) — that works on the iPhone. There are similar apps for Android and other platforms, and Office365 and I believe Google Docs are jumping into the fray with their own entries.

Scanner Pro isn’t free, but I realized it would pay for itself after about three archival boxes so what the heck.

What I like about it is this: it does a terrific job of capturing print documents, of deskewing them (meaning: if you take a photo of the document at an angle, or the document is crooked in some way, as it might be if it’s bound together, as the British documents are, you can draw a box and it kind of straightens it out; enough for government work anyway), of creating multi-page PDFs, of running OCR (optical character recognition, meaning that it looks for recognizable text within the image–this is what makes the document searchable), and–extremely importantly from my point of view–it uploads the documents to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Docs, and Box are all covered at least).

Hence, by the time I left the archive I would have already uploaded that day’s work into the cloud. Even if my phone got lifted on the tube ride home, I wouldn’t have lost my work.

Now, as I said–I have no vested financial interest in Scanner Pro and could not care less if that’s the app you choose to work with. The important thing is that you pick an app and work with it a bit so that you know how to use it pretty well before you set foot in an archive.

I would suggest that you try out a number of different types of documents in different formats–Goblet of Fire is a big, fat book, so you can see how your program deals with curvy pages. Also try single documents, big type, small type, and if your work is likely to involve images, try those too.

I do not find that Scanner Pro works great with images, but I didn’t have many to contend with and was just as likely to use the actual camera function on my phone for those.

Dealing with the files

Okay, so you now have a system to digitize images into files. Great!

Hey, where are you going? Our work here isn’t done.

In fact, what comes next is VITALLY important.

It’s also incredibly tedious and easy to let slip. Try not to let it.

So, now you have a bunch of digital files … now what?

If you’re like me, your hard drive starts to look like this after a while.

Annotation 2019-06-21 101657

In case you were wondering, there are six hundred files in this folder.

Also in case you were wondering … those are not the original file names that I gave these. I retro-organized this folder almost a year after I collected these articles because I realized that I had no idea what any of them contained. (The format is YYYY-MM-DD because Windows keeps it in order by date that way).

So, first up: two other tools I used.

Annotation 2019-06-21 102218

One is a PDF editor. Scanner Pro does a lot, but sometimes I need a little more boost. Or I needed to OCR a language other than English. Or I wanted to insert bookmarks, as I did with this copy (left) of the testimony to the Milner Commission in 1919, because the file I generated was over two hundred pages long.

Sometimes I leave little digital sticky notes in the documents. As long as it took me to learn how to work paperless, I did eventually master the skill because … did I mention there were six hundred files in that one folder alone?

For this task, I lit on PDF XChange Editor. I’m not linking to it here because they’ve changed the way they sell the software–when I first found it, the PDF Viewer and the PDF Editor were sold together for about half the cost of what they’re selling each individually for now.

If you’re with a university and have access to student pricing, compare with Adobe Acrobat or see if your university offers another solution.

When it came to putting it all together, I am a huge fan and devotee of Zotero, which I will link to because it’s free and fucking fantastic.

Zotero is your digital librarian. There’s a lot of training available online (free), and a lot of universities support it pretty well–it can take a bit to unlock all of the things it can do, but here is why I like it a lot.

Here, for example, is what the Zotero version of the folder I posted above looks like:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103350

I did have to go in and enter the title of each article, the author (if it had one), and date — this is something I would highly recommend that you get into the habit of doing daily. When I would come back to the flat I rented in London for my research stay, I would pour a glass of wine and sit in front of the TV and pick away at this on my laptop. If you let it go, it becomes unwieldy.

But here’s why this is useful. First off, you can include tags on each entry:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103649

Now, if I want to find all of the articles from the Egyptian Gazette that have to do with unemployment demonstrations, I can find them.

Second … if you double click on the entry, it opens the PDF. (I use Box storage as my Zotero storage). It’s all linked right there.

Third, Zotero has plugins for Microsoft Office and OpenOffice (and other things–as it’s open source, people are constantly developing plugins) so that you can generate footnotes and endnotes without having to retype everything.

You can also import records into Zotero directly from your university library’s catalog — again, you don’t have to retype everything.

Seriously, given the number of people I know who had to spend days “fixing” their footnotes prior to submitting the dissertation, I cannot recommend Zotero enough.

But again, it has a learning curve.

Practice, Practice, Practice

This is my last piece of advice here, and it’s one I’ve said over and over: make sure you know how to use your tools. Make sure you’re comfortable with them. If something is a bit squidgy (academic term), google and see if there’s a workaround or how others have dealt with it.

You’ll have enough unanticipated issues to deal with on the road as it is. Having a solid plan as to how you’re going to work with the material you can collect from the beginning will take a lot of the stress off of your shoulders, so that when you get to the archives you can be productive right away.

In future columns on the research year, I’ll discuss how to plan out what you’ll be doing, and how to try to keep sane while you’re on the road. Stay tuned!