Research Strategies, Pt. 1: Archive Scanning

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Bookshelves, 1725

As November approaches, we hope many of you are beginning to think about pulling together a proposal for Boston Summer Seminar 2016!  In this first of an ongoing series on research strategies, I want to share some tips for conducting your initial environmental scan of our partner institutions’ collections. Effective long-distance reconnaissance of our holdings will be vital in developing a preliminary research plan.

Get to Know Our Partner Institutions

Start by scanning our introductions to each partner institution, which provide links to catalogs and collection guides as well as a summary of collection strengths. Even if you believe you know what a specific library or archive is known for, you may be surprised by one of their areas of focus or a recent acquisition highlighted on their website. Online exhibitions and institutional blogs often showcase oddball items and quirky collections — and may suggest a new body of source material for your project.

Be Patient, Be Flexible, Be Stubborn

Archival materials, particularly unpublished manuscripts, can present a challenge to the researcher looking for materials on a certain theme. Personal correspondence, diaries, household or business accounts, organizational records, photograph albums — each document may contain information on such diverse topics as the weather, food purchases, local or national politics, family gossip, travel plans, social networks, spiritual anxieties, and personal health. These are rich sources for research, but are rarely transcribed or indexed comprehensively to allow for easy access. Instead, researchers must rely on a general scope note (a paragraph or two in the catalog record summarizing the contents of a collection) or, ideally, more detailed finding aids or collection guides, prepared by archives staff.

I encourage researchers to be patient, flexible, and stubborn when searching online catalogs and collection guides. Begin with a broad range of search terms, including personal and organizational names as well as topics. It is never too early to begin building a web of interpersonal connections for your topic — who was socializing with whom and where were they gathering?  When working with personal papers, these informal networks are often vital to finding relevant materials.  If your first few searches return few results, try again with slightly different language. If you find a promising collection, take note of the subject headings used to describe that collection, and try searching those terms as well. Try broader or narrower language if your initial words and phrases fail to return results.

Consider Diverse Genres

Researchers are often eager to read personal papers since correspondence and diaries promise intimate access to individual lives. However, depending on your topic, those personal voices may be hard to find, or those personal voices may need to be supplemented with other types of sources. As you are preparing your proposed list of materials to consult, ask yourself what you might learn from newspapers, broadsides, theater programs, illustrated magazines, sermon notes, ledger-books, meeting minutes, artifacts, photographs, political posters, textiles, coins and paper currency, or maps and atlases. I have worked with researchers, for example, who found evidence of cultural attitudes toward indigenous peoples in illustrations on eighteenth-century atlases, looked to execution day sermons for evidence of Early Republican sexual practices, and scoured church records as a way to map inter-racial relations in nineteenth-century Boston. Historical research is, more often than not, a creative process of gleaning what we can from an incomplete record of the past.

Find Your Focus

Without exception, our 2015 research teams were overly ambitious in the amount of archival material they planned to review while in Boston. Three weeks will fly by. Remember that working with archival collections often requires slowing down to decipher handwriting or antiquated abbreviations. While you won’t be penalized for listing collections in your proposal you never get to during your residency, it is also perfectly reasonable to build a research plan around an in-depth examination of a specific collection of personal papers, or a topical survey of a certain genre of material — advertising cards, for example, or menus.

Ask an Archivist!

Each of our partner institutions has a staff of trained professionals whose job it is to assist you in navigating their holdings. We work frequently with researchers who contact us long-distance seeking further information on many topics, including how to conduct effective searches in our catalog, obtain reproductions of a specific document, and better understand the scale of a vast manuscript collection. We want our materials to be used, and we’re here to help.

So reach out if you have questions, and we will do our best to support you in strengthening your proposal.

~ Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, MHS Liaison Librarian for the Boston Summer Seminar

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