We all develop our own styles of archival research through practice. I use what my adviser calls the “jewelry store robbery” style of research. That means I hit the archive quick, photograph everything that seems even tangentially relevant, and then assess it all later in the comfort of my TV room. That doesn’t work for everyone. Some prefer to work and transcribe in the archive itself. That’s fine too. Personally, I have a hard time concentrating when there are other people around, so I usually prefer to do most of my work at home.
That also means that I have literally thousands of archive pictures on my hard drive. Is all of it relevant to my current research? Absolutely not. Hundreds of pictures currently serve no discernable purpose.
But that’s true of archival research as a whole, not just the “jewelry store robbery” style. If you’re up to the stage in your graduate career where you’re doing archival research — either working on your MA thesis or getting started on your dissertation — you’re probably noticing that working in archives involves a lot of trial and error. We like to envision that we’ll come across that smoking gun, the one document we need that cracks our whole case. Unfortunately, it rarely works like that. While there are certainly exciting finds, mostly we build our case over long hours connecting multiple documents.
That’s the funny thing about archival research. For every useful document we find, we might have gone through dozens of useless ones. But my point here today is to never forget that so-called “useless” stuff! I’m happy to have hundreds of pictures that I currently have no idea what to do with. As I’ll show, I’ve benefited a lot from realizing later on that these documents do in fact serve a purpose.
First, you have to remember something important: a dissertation is a long-term project. You’ll be working on this thing for years. Though some advisers (not mine, thankfully) act as if you should have the entire project meticulously planned out before you start writing, experience will show you that’s impossible. You can write a clear proposal with well thought-out chapters, yet still realize that things have to change once you start writing. It’s just a natural part of the process. For instance, I cut 2 whole chapters from my proposal when I started writing and realized my initial plan wouldn’t work. The dissertation is definitely better because I did that.
In terms of archival research, the fact that a dissertation is a long-term project means that it’s okay if you don’t immediately know where something fits. You don’t know what your dissertation will look like a year from now.
Case in point: when originally planning my dissertation, I had an idea for a whole chapter on socialism in the Gilded Age. With that in mind, I planned a research trip to Harvard and looked at Edward Bellamy’s papers. This must have been back in 2016. Bellamy was a utopian socialist who wrote a fairly boring novel in 1887, Looking Backward, where he envisioned a future society that had achieved a universal income and equal distribution of wealth. Bellamy’s influence was huge, and his socialist vision even rivaled Marx’s at the time.
Problem? I soon realized that a whole chapter on this was a complete diversion in my dissertation. It hit the brakes on the narrative and didn’t really add to my analysis. So I dropped Bellamy from my story, and thought I’d wasted that archival trip.
Fast-forward to my writing stage, and I remember that Bellamy corresponded with a few of the actors in my dissertation (actors who I discovered after researching Bellamy). Luckily for me, I had a few hundred pictures from his papers saved and ready to go. So now, rather than a chapter on socialism, I have references sprinkled throughout a few chapters where Bellamy wrote to or commented on the work of my main actors. It adds some nice flavor that I didn’t plan at all when I initially research Bellamy.
That’s just one example of how I realized later on (even years later, in some cases) that a seemingly-useless archival find became extremely useful over time. And that’s why I say you should save everything you find in the archive. In time, you might realize that you’ve found the perfect place for that document or folder that had you stumped. It’s just part of the writing process.
But the dissertation itself is only one way to make use of unrelated archival finds. Another, as I’ve learned, is publishing. Finding random things in the archive gives you great ideas for outside projects. These don’t need to be large, time-consuming ordeals. I’ll use another case-in-point: a few days ago I published a short post on History News Network (you can read the article here). It told the story of Enoch Marvin Banks, a history professor at the University of Florida who was ousted in 1911 for committing the cardinal sin of writing that slavery caused the Civil War.
The origins of this article are again, in the archive. In John Bates Clark’s papers at Columbia, I was doing my usual “jewelry store robbery.” Upon skimming a letter, I saw “slavery” mentioned. This was completely unrelated to my research, but I thought I might like reading it anyway, so I snapped a picture. Upon reading it later on, I realized this letter told Banks’ story and formed the foundation for my History News Network article.
At the time, however, I had no idea what to do with this. It was not my field — I don’t study slavery, the South, or Jim Crow. For years (I think I found it in 2016, again), this was just an interesting story I would tell colleagues when we were talking about our work. But then I thought: “Confederate flags and monuments are constantly in the news. This is a relevant topic.” So I decided to write it up quickly. All told, I maybe spent 2 hours writing the post in the evening, then about 30 minutes making some editorial revisions. And boom! A publication. Not peer-reviewed, of course, but something a lot of people will read and learn from. That’s always what I find satisfying.
So here you see two examples of when I found seemingly useless documents in archives that, in time, became extremely useful. Whether you’re experienced in archival research or are just about to get started, always keep this in mind. Those pictures you snapped years ago might fit perfectly in the new dissertation chapter you’re planning. Revisit your photograph folder from time to time, and see if you’ve forgotten about something. If you don’t take pictures, then at least note down where interesting material is. You never know where this might fit in your dissertation years down the road, or where you can get yourself an easy publication using these finds.