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.
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.
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.
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.
What is a workflow, and why do you need to plan one?
Simply put, a workflow is how you go from this:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
Another query from a friend – hopefully they won’t mind me using our discussion as the springboard for a post, because they are not the only person I’ve had this conversation with. Not only that, but I, myself, have been talked off this very same ledge more than once.
It goes something like this. You’re past prospectus, you’re getting reading to embark on research–or perhaps you’re mid research, or even writing your dissertation.
At some point, someone mentions to you–or you see an article, or somehow it is brought to your attention that there is another scholar working on a topic similar to yours.
And you go see what they’re doing.
And you realize their topic sounds familiar.
And you start to feel like you’re having an out of body experience.
And, at some point, you realize it’s been about twenty seconds since you last inhaled.
Because … they’re doing your topic.
And your palms sweat.
If someone else is doing your topic … then your work isn’t original any more! It’s too late to start over now! I can’t start over! Am I doomed? Is it the apocalypse?
No. No, it isn’t. (Okay, in full disclosure: it may be the apocalypse, but this isn’t why.)
Your work is still original, and so is theirs.
Let’s counter the irrationality of panic and insecurity with some cold hard facts.
You have your sources, your framework, and your theory. No one else has this. Even if the other scholar is looking at the exact same topic as you, the two of you are not going to write the same thesis. It’s just not going to happen. (And if it does, this isn’t the column for you. You need to be looking at pieces on plagiarism and academic dishonesty because that just doesn’t happen).
We put such a premium on the doctoral process involving An Original Piece of Research to The Field that we miss the fact that we’re supposed to be entering a conversation with other scholars. Other people are going to comment on your work. You’re building off of a cadre of scholars who are adjacent to your subfield. And, yes, maybe one of them will know something about your topic too. It’s okay! That’s what academia is all about (or it’s supposed to be, anyway).
But this is a hard lesson to come to. For years, whenever I read anything that came a little too close to my own research my face would start to burn and I’d feel like a fraud. My work isn’t new, I’d tell myself. Everyone knows this. I’m just rehashing old territory.
You’ll feel like this a lot when you’re in the midst of research and writing because you’ve spent so long with the material that it feels like common knowledge. Trust me, it isn’t.
I guarantee the other scholar isn’t using your sources. They have stuff you don’t have. You have stuff they don’t have. And even if you come to the exact same conclusion, you’ll have taken different routes to get there, and both of your works will benefit. Don’t see this as a threat to your own work.
Edit: when I posted this on Facebook, a colleague commented that:
A graduate student emailed me freaking out that I had “beat him” to the topic. Since then, we’ve submitted grant applications together to conduct an expansive oral history project.
Think of the opportunities: conference panels, grants, etc. You’re starting to find your tribe!
Do, however, take steps to protect your own work. I never posted anything dissertation-related online, except for some public history pieces and a very short (10 page) paper I gave at a conference. I’m happy to share my work with interested scholars, but until I’m ready to publish it and put it out there for the world to see, I’m not broad-banding the draft versions. This is just common sense, and I’d recommend it to everyone. You can’t be too careful.
In my next posts in the Grad School Survival Guide, I’ll discuss the process of planning a research year, and how to try to get through it in one piece. Stay tuned!
I know, not the best title for my first blog entry, right?
A couple of months back, I presented some of initial findings on epidemic and epizootic disease in Egypt during the first World War at a symposium. (Ok, I’ll tell you the symposium was at Oxford. Yes, you may touch me.) I was flattered to be asked, especially since, as an ABD candidate, I got to be part of a two-panel session with speakers like Khaled Fahmy and Marilyn Booth (I’m still not entirely convinced I didn’t embarrass myself and everyone else, but that’s impostor syndrome for you).
The paper–which you can read here–is a short synopsis of human suffering during the war, especially among the poor, rural classes in Egypt, which are largely undocumented. It’s a works-in-progress presentation, very much based in preliminary findings, as one does at this stage in writing.
My dissertation focuses on breakdowns in public health during the war–the topic sentence could be summed up as “1918 was a deadly year for the Egyptian populace.” Even if one heeds Roger Cooter’s warning about reifying a positivist relationship between war and disease –and I’ve compiled statistics for nearly a decade before and after the war–the demographic anomalies in Egypt between 1914 and 1918 are unmistakable. Four times as many Egyptians died of disease during the war than from military actions.
1918 also saw the birth rate decline to its lowest rate in a quarter century.
I described a number of issues: food shortages that were documented as early as 1916. As residents complained about shortages of soap, eggs, cheese, and meat the Anglo-Egyptian administration, concerned with keeping the protectorate profitable, maintained a positive trade balance, exporting goods that were dearly needed at home. The cost of some basic household items rose over 200% between 1914 and 1918.
Likewise, relapsing fever and typhus cases increased substantially — both are louse-borne diseases, which can likely be tied to the increased movement of troops and support staff (including the men of the Egyptian Labour Corps). The war ended with the “Spanish flu” outbreak, which killed almost 140,000 Egyptians in just under three months.
There were also epizootics of both cattle plague (rinderpest) and foot-and-mouth disease that lasted over 18 months in large swaths of the country. Is there a relation between this and the soaring price of meat? It’s almost certainly the source of much of the protein that was sold on the black market in major cities.
As I said. Cheerful stuff.
During the break that followed my panel, a member of the audience approached me, identifying himself as a member of the landholding class from the Sharqiyya province in the Nile Delta (for the record, he is not an academic).
He insisted that I was completely wrong about nearly everything that I had said.
“We had hygiene!” he declared. “People didn’t die from these diseases in the 20th century!”
He suggested that I extend the dates of my study by decades in each direction; for example, he inquired if I had I looked at the number of deaths incurred through the construction work on the Suez Canal (1863-69), or knew how many more people died of disease in Egypt in the 18th century.
I won’t lie. This was my first outing with this material, and this was … not the sort of feedback I had hoped to get. The more I tried to explain the nuance of my argument, the more pushback I got. Having spent 3 months mapping the country from cataract to Delta, I tried to change the subject and ask where he was from–meaning where, specifically, in Sharqiyya. He looked at me as if I might just be the stupidest man on earth and responded, “Egypt?!”
As you can tell, I’ve let this episode roll right off my back.
However, I think there is something significant in the greater picture about his defensiveness, one that pushed me to think about the puzzling collective silence in nearly every history book about what I’m looking at. Even the Spanish flu is described in only two medical reports from the time; I’ve seen it mentioned nowhere else.
The notion of Egyptians dying in elevated numbers from disease was clearly distasteful to him–largely, I suspect, for the reason that it was undignified. People—at least not those of his class—did not die from disease in high numbers in the early 20th century.
In short, Egypt was modern. If it had not ascended, as the Khedive Ismāᶜīl had optimistically pronounced in 1869, to being among the ranks of countries which should be considered European, it had developed more rapidly than much of the Arab east, which languished in such a state that one scholar discussing the “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic in the Arabian peninsula (1919) could legitimately wonder whether medical officials in central Arabia were capable of distinguishing the influenza apart from other diseases with similar symptoms, such as typhoid.
Indeed, my interlocutor is correct about that hygiene and medical care had been introduced under Muhammad Ali Pasha in the mid-19th century as part of a national campaign to improve public health. This has been described by LaVerne Kuhnke and Hibba Abuguideri (although the project had peaked in the 1850s and all but vanished under British administration).
I struggled to explain in my response that afternoon that my interest was the significance of the war’s anomalous blip in the statistical record. The public health scheme in Egypt had, to a certain degree, brought epidemic disease under control, which is why the fact that infection and death rates soared during the war comprise a factor of interest. So, too, do the numbers of registered prostitutes in Egyptian cities, as well as the number of reported cases of venereal diseases, both of which increased substantially during the war and comprised their own crises in both medical and social health
During the first world war, Egypt was a nation at war. Its citizens were recruited into the war effort, and many of those citizens faced bodily harm and death fighting for the Union Jack in far-off lands. Those who remained at home suffered from shortages of basic supplies–although production rates decreased slightly, they dropped nowhere near as much as consumption rates. They were forced to eat tainted meat that they purchased at high prices. They died of disease whose effects were exacerbated by malnutrition. Some turned to prostitution or other illicit activity to make ends meet.
There is nothing heroic about the fight against a virus, perhaps. As the first World War and the 1919 uprising became enmeshed together in the national historiographic project celebrating the nationalist movement and Egypt’s strive for self-determination, there was no space for sympathetic portrayal of poor women desperate to feed starving children and elderly relatives, and those who, in sheer desperation, turned to extreme measures to support themselves.
The commemorations held in Egypt from 2013 onward to celebrate the nation’s contribution to the First World War recognize only one of these groups.
I’m hoping to recognize the second.
 Roger Cooter. “Of War and Epidemics: Unnatural Couplings, Problematic Conceptions.” The Journal of the Society for the Social History of Medicine 16, no. 2 (2003): 283–302
 LaVerne Kuhnke. Lives at Risk. Vol. no. 24. Comparative Studies of Health Systems and Medical Care. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990; Hibba Abugideiri. Gender and the Making of Modern Medicine in Colonial Egypt. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.