Sunday, May 6, 2012

Travel Research Advice

Editor's note: family will probably find this post less interesting than colleagues will. I'm cooking up something fun for the rest of you later this week.

The graduate students in my department recently held an informal symposium for advanced students to share their experiences and tips from recent archival research trips. These come in two kinds. Non-Americanists tend to apply for large travel grants to go live in a foreign country for an academic or calendar year (10-12 months). Americanists tend to make several shorter trips with small grants to specific archives. As a Germanist, my advice is mainly meant for those who travelling long distances, but I have also included some suggestions from the other students who spoke.

Match sources to your proposed research locations. The more finding you can do from home by internet, the better. If you are working with sources that can be found in multiple locations, first try to go to the greatest concentration of them, then decide whether it makes sense to move from place to place or to do short research trips. If your sources are in multiple locations, weigh the cost of the rent you will be paying at your “home base” versus the cost in time, money, and stress of traveling or even moving to a new city.

Newer building of the State Library in Berlin, the 4th of 5
cities in which I conducted dissertation research.
There are many options to save money when traveling, among them ride-sharing, couch-surfing with friends or strangers, and youth hostels (still cheaper than a hotel, even if you are older than the official cut-off age for membership). Look for student discounts. If possible get a room with a minifridge and microwave; then bring some silverware so you can “cook” in your room. One grad student recommended; another suggested camping at the Greenbelt National Park near the National Archives (up to 2 weeks). Finally, pack a lunch, snacks, and instant drink packets so that your money doesn’t disappear as fast.

When looking up sources online, don’t rely solely on WorldCat. Make sure you click all the way through the library catalog or archive finding aid. For instance, when I got to one of my sites in Berlin and tried to order certain books, I discovered on the request page that they were actually lost or damaged during World War II.

Furthermore, if you include signature or call numbers in a research plan with your travel research grants, this demonstrates to referees that you have planned ahead and won’t just show up at an archive and hope to find things. Of course, your actual research plan may well deviate from this once you get there, but it’s better to have one to alter than to have none at all.

Make sure you have up-to-date information about your archive(s): location, hours, ID requirements, reproduction costs, and rules about photography. (On the morning I set out to my first archive in one city, I found to my surprise that it had moved!) Also bring a couple of signed/sealed letters of recommendation from the department chair with your project description and advisor approval. I only ever used one once in Germany, but apparently many archivists in Latin countries won’t talk to you without one. Finally, Tom B. can make you official university business cards (free); or watch for a discount from Staples (typically to get 100 free if you use their online wizard).

As to dress code, you will be able to gauge the formality of relations between the archivists/librarians and researchers on your first day, but you want to err on the side of being slightly better dressed for the first few visits. This may be particularly true for women and for anyone whose grasp of the local language is shaky, as a little more jewelry or slacks and a tie instead of jeans may help convey the image of your being a serious researcher. Larger institutions and libraries will probably be more informal.

How you present yourself can be really important. Other students talked of describing their projects in certain ways to appeal to certain archivists. Some respond to confidence, but others may respond to weakness (this appears to be gendered and true for some cultures). But don’t just talk to academic and research types: network with anyone who is willing to talk about your project with you (landlords, cleaning ladies, taxi drivers). They may know someone who knows someone.

Break room for researchers at the temporary location
of the Main Saxon State Archive, which has since 
moved back to its original location in the center of 
town, now freshly renovated. German researchers 
brought their sandwiches wrapped in foil; I (re)used
 a series of plastic sandwich baggies.
Always ask about reproduction and photography guidelines when you get a place. The rules may be unclear, or the costs may have changed since the information was uploaded to the website. I only discovered at one library that photography without a flash or tripod was allowed by watching fellow patrons and overhearing a librarian explain this to a newcomer. If you are photographing, bring your camera battery charger and back up files to an external hard drive or online cloud in the middle of the day, not just after you leave the archive. A thumb drive can also be useful for smaller files.

Be prepared to spend money on reproductions. As long as you have enough to live on, they are cheaper than a return trip. It’s just money! (I think I spent about 1000 Euros on scans and photocopies; I also took thousands of photographs.) Having paid all that money, understand that it is common to use only 10% of your research in your dissertation. (Says my adviser; I am finding this out now.) It is better to have too much than too little, especially if your research question is unclear at the outset.

Give yourself time to get into new sources. Don’t be frustrated if it takes a day or two to settle into an archive or to start a new thread of research. Sure, it feels like you’re not being productive, but a well-planned research thrust is infinitely more useful than many done on auto-pilot, without consideration for how these documents shape your larger project. Go ahead, look through the new boxes or folders, assess the possibilities and the questions you may ask or answer with those sources, and take copious notes.

Keep a research journal plus separate documents for each set of sources, complete with signatures, dates, what you ordered photocopied, etc. It is particularly important to note why you chose not to work with certain sources, or 6 (or 18) months from then, you may be left wondering whether you overlooked something. One colleague uses OneNote, another a spreadsheet; I keep a running Word document with the latest date at the top.

Do not translate while you are at the archive. Not only is that a waste of time, it also compromises the record of your research. Similarly, it is cheaper to read what you have collected back home, so use your travel time to look at more sources and to ask yourself questions about the progress of your project.

Be prepared for something to go wrong. If an archive turns out to be closed (happened to me), if the books you really want are all at the bindery, or you aren’t granted access to certain documents, it isn’t because you are a bad researcher. Setbacks are normal. What is important is how you respond: are those sources critical to your argument? Can you arrange to get them elsewhere? Do you need to start planning a return trip? Can you work around them?

Little perks of small places: the staff at this medical history
library bought me ice cream and coffee on my birthday.
Be nice to the archivists. They can help you find a place to eat lunch near the archive! Consider them as colleagues, even when some act like gatekeepers or uninterested functionaries. When you leave an archive, handwrite a thank-you note. I used note cards I bought from the Farmer’s Market with photographs of rural Illinois. I had come to collect a piece of their country and left them with a piece of mine.

Start your acknowledgements section early and add to it every time you go to a new archive or meet another scholar over dinner to brainstorm over your respective projects. It is also helpful to keep a list of the institutions that want a copy of your completed dissertation.

If you have not already downloaded the campus VPN, I highly recommend it. Not only will it protect your internet connection, but you can also use it to ::coughcough:: access US-based websites. (You know, in case you’re homesick and want to watch something familiar.)

Finally, take breaks from your research, particularly if you are away from home for several months. When you are refreshed from a quick trip home, or to a new city, or even just a weekend spent at museums, concerts, or a local park, you will be a better researcher. For those on long-distance trips, find a church, take a dance class, meet your neighbors, get involved with a co-op—live where you are researching. Most of us are privileged to get to travel to research and should make time to enjoy it.

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