Monday, October 3, 2011

On my work, part I

June 2011 in Haus 1, Staatsbibliothek in Berlin
Laptop + old books + camera = ready to work!

Doing archival research for one's dissertation--and especially going abroad to do so--is something of a rite of passage for history graduate students. This probably applies to disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and archaeology, too. Once you've condensed your dissertation proposal into the neat package necessary for travel grant applications; jumped through the hoops of visas, international health insurance, and local institutional affiliation; and then actually lived and worked in a foreign country for 6 or 10 or more months, it's like you've entered a special club. "Oh yeah," you can say to the first-year graduate students. "I've already been to [insert comparatively exotic city] to do my research. I'm writing my dissertation now." It's true that getting to live and do research in Paris, Mexico City, Moscow, or Johannesburg is a unique and privileged opportunity. How many of my high school or even college classmates have gotten to do the same? Most American Germanists prefer large and metropolitan Berlin, but even living 7 months in Dresden was a wonderful experience. It's no cultural backwater. I'll be telling stories about it for the rest of my life.

But I'm not writing my dissertation now. Because writing a dissertation is more than merely reading some old documents in archives far away and then coming home and writing about it. For starters, I did very little reading while I was in Germany. On the advice of my advisers, I spent my time there collecting; now that I'm home again sharing the mortgage and grocery bills with Dear Husband, I am finally getting around to reading some of the mountain of data I collected.

But I'm not even supposed to be doing that just yet. My advisers want me to sort through that mountain, looking for sources that stand out for their uniqueness and potential, so that over the course of this semester I can refine my chapter outline. Next semester I'll start writing my dissertation.

Until then, I thought I would share some reflections on the process of doing archival research, day-in and day-out. For one, it is temporally different than the work I had done with primary sources while I was taking graduate classes. Earlier, I would either order something through inter-library loan, or I would go hunting in the stacks at our library. Then I would snatch time between this class and that meeting to read, analyze, and write a paper by the end of the semester. Living abroad to research, researching in the archive or library became an all-day, every-day task (even most Saturdays). It had a very different rhythm.

What I liked least about my work were the physical aspects of it. For instance, at the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) in Berlin, the chairs at the table with the microfiche readers were so high that although I was at eye level with the machine, I had to point my toes for my shoes to even touch the floor. By contrast, at the Hauptstaatsarchiv in Dresden, the chairs were too low for the tables, which made typing for long periods uncomfortable. The reading room there was often cold, so during the winter in Dresden I brought a heavy shawl and used it as a lap blanket. Meanwhile, summer in the un-air-conditioned library in Berlin meant sometimes warm afternoons (although not many) when we had to collectively decide whether to use the drapes to shut out the sun--but also the breeze. And nowhere was I allowed to eat and work at the same time (for obvious reasons, I might add!), so although my mental energy might have been high, if my stomach was cramping, I had to stop working long enough to eat, which sometimes interrupted my rhythm. Other times I had to stop to wash my hands because the old ink/paper/bindings left a dust that irritated my skin after a while. I developed pretty good hand hygiene before eating! On the other hand, while a cleaner activity, looking at microfilm for hours on end often led to a stiff neck (the screen tends to be set too high) and to dead brain cells (the film…never…ends…).

All this work on sources from the past requires a lot of technology, both new and old. As the photo at the head of this entry suggests, I depended heavily on my laptop and digital camera for photographing sources. This was both free and convenient, because those thousands of photographs weigh no more than my laptop. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I got to Berlin, the screen on my laptop died. It had flickering some in Leipzig, but I had hoped to make it back home. No such luck. I was able to find a computer store near my new apartment that was so...convenient: my laptop lived there for an. entire. month. Thankfully, my roommates in Kreuzberg were sweet (if not predisposed to cleanliness), and one lent me an old laptop of his. Unfortunately, it was an Italian laptop set to the German keyboard. That made taking notes in English tricky! (Germans switch Z and Y, for instance.) Then my landlord loaned me the German laptop in the photo above. It was old but fast, and once I figured out how to get it to talk to my camera, I could get back to work. Next time: some fun stories from my research.

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