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Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > June > The Art of the Archive

The Art of the Archive
Or how I spent my summer vacation.
Elesha Coffman | posted 6/24/2009 03:17PM

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One of my professors at Duke, Dr. David Steinmetz, once said, quoting his mentor in Germany, that the number one thing a scholar needs is the ability to sit still for a very long time. (Dr. Steinmetz had an appropriately long and guttural German word for this, but I unfortunately cannot remember it.) Specifically, at least in my line of research, the scholar needs to be able to sit still for a very long time in an archive, which is a special kind of art. In case you should ever wish to develop this skill, or if you’ve ever just wondered how historians compile all those footnotes, a primer:

1. Contact the archivist before you arrive. Archivists are an underappreciated lot. Most of those I’ve worked with are based in university libraries, tucked away somewhere far from any windows that might permit deadly sun rays to strike fragile manuscripts. They know their collections, they know their policies, and they’re generally eager to help any researcher who actually manages to find them, but they need more lead time than your basic librarian.

Sometimes, archival materials are not stored at the archivist’s already obscure office, but someplace even more obscure off-campus. Also, archived materials are not usually indexed card-catalog style, much less electronically searchable. Instead, they are organized into folders, stored in flat, rectangular boxes, designed, frankly, more to protect the materials than to make them accessible. If you’re lucky, someone on the library staff has prepared a guide to the collection, giving maybe a few sentences on the contents of each box. If you’re not so lucky, you need to be really nice to the archivist, because he or she will probably need to fetch lots of boxes out of storage that you might not need at all.

2. Wear a sweater. Think a movie theater is a nice cool place to spend a hot summer day? If you really want to cool off, find an archive. Low temperatures and humidity must be good for preserving paper, because just about every archive I’ve visited is kept at what feels like 50 degrees. Perhaps one of the perks of working in an archive is never needing to refrigerate your lunch.

3. Prepare to be surprised. Even with a detailed guide, you never know exactly what you’ll find in an archive. In Reinhold Niebuhr’s papers at the Library of Congress (the gold standard of archives, kept well below freezing), in addition to irate exchanges with the editors of The Christian Century, I found correspondence about his son’s bedwetting. The bedwetting was not at all relevant to my research, but the nasty letters to the Century led me to interpret Niebuhr’s break with that magazine in a new way. (Briefly, while Niebuhr’s politics and theology drifted slowly but significantly away from the Century’s liberalism from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, Niebuhr stopped writing for the magazine because he was angry about a string of bad book reviews.) Archival surprises are often the best fruits of a researcher’s labors.

On the other hand, scholars must take care not to succumb to what a colleague of mine dubbed the Research Squirrel syndrome. Research squirrels can’t resist picking up every nut they find and showing it to their friends. You do not want an office down the hall from a research squirrel, nor do you want to read his or her book. There is simply Too Much Information in even a modest archive to either read or report on all of it. Around the midpoint of an archival visit, I try to switch from broad curiosity to narrow focus. But there’s always something that leads me back off the track …

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