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Is Archival Research Right for Me? (Advice from the Archives)
Advice from the Archives Series Note: Occasionally, we dig into the archives to uncover a post we feel holds relevant and timely information worthy of a repost. If you are interested in learning more about research grants and fellowships to support your graduate study, be sure to visit the GradFund Knowledgebase.
A lot of funding for humanities graduate work is tied to travel for research, so pursuing archival research can open up opportunities to apply for funding to support pre-dissertation and dissertation research. And, of course, archival research can lead you to deepen and expand your project in meaningful ways. Yet, pursuing archival research that involves travel can seem overwhelming– not worth the hassle. In this series, which expands on an earlier post, we will explore what kinds of projects might benefit from consulting archives, the various kinds of archives, the variety of awards that support archival research, and advice about planning your visit.
“Is Archival Research Right for Me?”
What kinds of projects or research questions might benefit from archival research? Some projects are obvious contenders: most historians will need to consult some kind of repository of documents, and many art historians will need to see certain sculptures or, say, stained glass windows wherever they are housed or installed. But what about literary scholars primarily working with published books? Or media researchers investigating 21st-century technologies? What kinds of primary sources would they need to travel to consult? Why might such trips prove worthwhile?
New theories of the archive– and funding bodies interested in innovative approaches to archival research– emphasize a broader sense of what constitutes archival materials or “original sources.” One notable funder in this group is the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). In a similar vein, the performance theorist Diana Taylor has introduced the term “repertoire” to categorize cultural practices stored and transmitted through performance rather than documents; the interdisciplinary field of “book history” emphasizes the material aspects of a document (e.g., the materials that constitute the page of a book) rather than focusing exclusively on the information stored in its text; and researchers in many fields might explore “born digital” sources such as webpages. As you formulate your research project for your PhD, you might find that such non-textual or extra-textual phenomena draw you to a variety of kinds of archives.
You may also find that you want to know more about the conditions under which original sources important to your research were collected, categorized, or preserved; or about what public engagement with certain original sources– whether artifacts in a museum, books in a library, or genealogical documents in a local history center– looks like. In these cases, visiting a collection or repository in person can be crucial. Such visits let you see how people interact with sources, what kinds of information about sources– their metadata– determines the way they are organized, and what information or related material gets left out of the collection. Site visits also enable you to access a significant but sometimes overlooked resource: archivists themselves, who often have deep institutional knowledge as well as recommendations for where to pursue related research.