The Art of the Archive
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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 ...