Thursday, July 10, 2014

How the Kids Do Research These Days

Greetings from New York! Here is your bonus shot of the Hudson River from the window of my train car (yes! train car) where I'm drafting this post. This is quite possibly the most scenic metropolitan train commute in America.

I've been thinking a lot about the way we do research today and about the way our sources and the research process make us feel.  A few weeks back I was feeling sentimental.  Today I was feeling, well, eye strain.  Allow me to explain.

Today's manuscript source was a fitting object of sentiment: a small pocket diary crammed with two years of notations, consisting of some dry financial transactions—75c for velvet, $10 to Mother, carriage 50c—and day-to-day accounts of the year that changed Charlotte Cushman’s career. The diary begins with her miserable tour of New England theaters in early 1844, follows her decision to give her acting a go in England, then takes a stormy and homesick Atlantic crossing.  Empty entries in late 1844 signal days filled up by sightseeing in Scotland until finally we arrive at Cushman's jubilant account of her successful debut and starring run at London’s Haymarket Theatre in early 1845.

Stirring stuff, huh? I was not filled with warm fuzzies.

Instead, I squinted through a massive magnifying glass at Cushman’s miniscule scrawl. Even worse: the entries for the early months of the year were double. How was that? Cushman's 1845 entries were written over the 1844 entries in paragraphs perpendicular to the original, a writing technique known as crosshatching, which was commonly used at the time to conserve paper for letters. Cushman's finances were tight, even with her London success, and she elected to save the cost and press her diary into a second year of service. Understandable, but can you say, illegible?!  Especially when Cushman chose to write in pencil! Please imagine what tiny pencil script looks like composed on a boat in storms by a desperately homesick young woman sobbing over leaving family and her beloved Rosalie Sully behind in Philadelphia.  

On Monday the 28th of October:
My dream & sole thought was Rosalie dear Rosalie. Rested in bed all day – part of the time asleep – the rest crying Oh God how miserable I am – my thoughts of home instead of bringing me comfort in the recollection of the [?] rendering me only more wretched that I had left as it were comforts of a home for uncertainty perhaps unkindness at all events no friends my constant exclamation “Why did I leave home? 

Impassioned stuff. Also: there are lots of [?] in my notes. 

Fortunately, Cushman’s scrawl will be able to follow me from the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room at Columbia University’s Butler Library to the dusty corners of the University of South Dakota’s oldest standing building, East Hall. How's that?

You see, after spending the morning skimming the volume, I did what every researcher since 2006 (or thereabouts) has done on any given day at the archive: I took out my camera and started clicking. My goal was to create a digital version to which I can return months or even years from now. Historians still need archives (do we ever!) and still visit archives, but a decade ago I would have needed a month or more to cover all of the items that I intend to tackle on this two-week trip to New York. Most of us traveling from far away opt to create our own digital copy* of many of our sources and place that in our own digital archive of sources. Even historians who live where they research might do so—you never know where you’ll end up or when you’ll desperately need (at 3am on a Saturday, anyone?) to see exactly how Cushman described the Atlantic squalls of October 1844.

Digitizing your own sources has a strange effect on the research and writing process. Scholars a decade ago were much more limited in what they could look at in a given amount of time—even with the ability to photocopy. In the 20th century, archival research involved  a legal pad and a photocopy request form. That has changed. First came the laptop computers, then the digital cameras, and now the tablets. Everyone photographs. Behind me, an elderly woman snapped away with a much newer version of my Canon. A man my father’s age was making his iPad perform double-duty, clicking photographs and taking notes on them. The division between the digital have and have-nots is not around age, but profession: the surest sign that someone is not a scholar or writer of some kind is the absence of technology.  

It’s tempting, in the panicked time-crunch of a short trip, to go crazy with the camera. Scholars have very different approaches to this technology. I follow a simple rule: don’t take a photograph without taking notes on it first. Unless it's a massive document, like the annotated translation of Camille that I worked with on Tuesday (and that I will pore over alongside other translations later on), I try to transcribe as much as I can before I click--particularly of manuscript (as opposed to print) sources. I find that the sources that I pore over and transcribe in the archive sit with me in a different way than those that get the click-and-run treatment. 

On the other hand, I have friends and colleagues who return from trips with thousands of photographs neither transcribed, annotated, or even indexed. Why waste time reading documents and writing out notes in situ when you can do that from home? On my recent trip to Washington D.C., I sat next to a woman clicking away through boxes and boxes and boxes of financial records. She told me that she came back from one trip with 6,000 photographs! What a processing project... Then again, who would want to sit for hours in the Library of Congress transcribing ledgers?^ 

The convenience of digital copying is undeniable, but I wonder...

Changes in the technology we use to conduct research affect not only the amount we can acquire (a topic for another post) but also the particular quality of the work we do. For me, the “shoot and run” method of research dulls the impact of the archive. I’m not just here to acquire sources, but also to come up with new ideas, consider new types of sources, and continue to refine my vision of my argument and my narrative. Different kinds of inspiration occur when you're working in an archive than when you're at home, at your desk, in your PJs, kicking a howling cat off of you and waving at the neighbors. 

Then there is the particular emotional weight of sitting for hours and days combing through  the detritus of people’s lives. Whether we embrace it or not, the work we do involves feelings, ours and theirs. A friend of mine recalled his experience reading through some school board records involving a case of sexual misconduct. He realized that he was revisiting what was possibly the worst day in this man’s life. A strange and sobering thought. At moments like these, do you sit and read slowly through the piles of reports in front of you or, overwhelmed by the piles of reports, do you pick up the next page, click your camera, and keep on moving on?

Today at 3:00 I found myself with only a few pages of notes, but 160 digital photographs. I was a woman with a mission, a woman on the move. I uploaded them, realigned them, converted the mess into a single PDF, Dropboxed it and breathed a sigh of relief. Charlotte Cushman, your diary is in my digital pocket! As the day snaked to its close, I went back to her illegible Nov 2nd entry and got to work deciphering it. But it turns out that even with the advantage of a digital zoom on a laptop computer, bad 19th-century pencil scrawl is bad 19th-century pencil scrawl—and all but illegible!

* Archives have different rules for how this works. Some limit the number of items that can be photographed. Others charge an all-you-can-eat camera-use fee for the day (usually $10 or $15). The rules are always the same: no flash, no tripods, photographs strictly for research purposes. Which is why you will never see images from my research on this site -- even though I sure would like to show you!

^ My own personal hell was the amazing theater history archive that didn't allow digital cameras at all. Transcribing playbills, which use a dizzying array of different typefaces, was a maddening and tedious exercise!

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