Archival Research, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts aimed at people without much archival research experience who need to do some.

A lot of people I know are either at archives this week (spring break or Semana santa, depending on how you look at it) or planning to be at archives this summer. I confess that I’m jealous. Archival research is the highlight of being a historian. (Really!) Tracking down obscure primary sources feels as exciting as chasing after buried treasure. When compared to the difficulties of writing, researching is downright fun.  

However, I wish I’d had some kind of a guide when I started doing my own archival research. I didn’t receive much in the way of instruction; my department assumed that PhD students in the archives would eventually “just figure it out.” I did eventually get a handle on how to do research at archives, but learning required a bumpy process of trial and error. I learned that archival research can be intimidating, overwhelming, and baffling for the uninitiated. I’ve drawn from my own experiences here and also polled the Twitterverse for wisdom and advice for beginning researchers.

[Many thanks to all the #Twitterstorians who contributed ideas to this post: @bookmobility, @cdimas14, @icpetrie, @rachelgnew, @storied_selves, @MexHistorian, @marydudziak, @StuckeyMary, @stschrader1, and lots of nice people who retweeted my question about archival advice!]

Network Early and Often  

I’m not kidding when I say that networking is a vital part of archival research. The success of my archival PhD research was directly tied to the relationships I created with archivists and other researchers. If writing is always better when made social, archival research is way better when made social.

Figure out through your professional network who has been to the archive you’ll be headed to. Do you know any fellow researchers who will be at the archive while you’re there? Network ahead of time so that you’ve already got some friends and colleagues when you arrive. Get in touch with them and ask them what their research experiences have been like. What tips can they give you? Other researchers can help you think through your research, as well as point you to interesting and relevant sources that you may not have known existed. They’ll also help make your archival research experience less lonely.  

Relationships with archivists can make or break an archival research experience. Aside from being nice and respectful to people because it’s the right thing to do, making friends with archivists often leads to research breakthroughs. More than one person I know has reported that helpful documents have magically started showing up when they establish friendships with the archivists. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Little things can help you cement your relationships with archive staff. Introduce yourself to the director. Remember people’s names. Write down names to put in your acknowledgments. Take people out to lunch when possible. Send a thank you card to the staff when you’re done. Bring people brownies.       

Do as much research ahead of time as possible.

Learn the archive’s policies ahead of time. Do they allow photography? Photocopies? Do they charge for it? What are photo reproduction policies? Does the archive require that you send a list of documents you want to examine ahead of time? Does the archive only allow pencils? Some archives have very clear policies about these things, while others have policies that change depending on which staff members are working that day.

If the archive has any kind of online catalog, do as much research ahead of time as possible. Make a list of documents that seem like they might be helpful, just to get you started. Often times, you may not know what you’re looking for when you first start, but you’ve got to start somewhere. It’s okay not to know everything at first.

Despite all of your great research ahead of time, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Anyone who has done archival research will tell you to be prepared to hear that the documents you want don’t exist. Sometimes the things listed in the catalog are not in the box. Sometimes there are no subject headings for your topic. Sometimes documents have been stolen. Sometimes they’re damaged or the paleography is impossible. You could look at these as roadblocks or you could look at them as opportunities. Sometimes having to use your own ingenuity and creativity will unearth some really great stuff.  

Get a good camera.

You may be able to take awesome photos with your smartphone, but for photographing archival documents to consult later, you’ll probably want a an actual camera. I don’t think its necessary to lug a DSLR to an archive unless you really want to. If you can afford it, upgrade your digital camera to the best one you can get. I shoot archive photos with a pocket camera, the marvelous Canon S95. It is worth thinking about the size of the sensor, as many archives seem to suffer from poor lighting. A camera with a big sensor will be able to take clear photos in dim light. A flip screen will also help save your back. A small lightweight tripod also does wonders for producing clear, sharp photos.  Consider these two photos. The one on the right was taken with a cheap digital camera and without a tripod. The one on the left was with my S95 and a tripod.


Practice Self-Care

Archival research, although really fun and exciting, can also be a profoundly lonely and isolating experience. As historians, we’re usually working alone, spending hours a day reading old documents. Self-care is particularly important when you’re researching in a foreign archive. Not only will you be dealing with the usual research stresses, but also with different cultures and languages and all of the stress that goes with travel.

It’s easy to go through long periods where the research isn’t going well, you’re faced with the prospect of sorting through another huge pile of documents that probably aren’t useful, the box doesn’t have the document that was listed in the catalog, etc etc.  Plenty of people get discouraged while doing research.  So, get your self-care practice in order. Eat well. (Especially eat a big protein breakfast!) Hydrate. Get some exercise. Take breaks. Sleep enough. Be social.

Next post: nuts and bolts of being in the archive.  

Practice Makes Improvement in Photography and Writing

Sometimes learning to write better feels futile; progress appears glacial. This week, I was thinking about my photography and how I’ve improved as a photographer. Since the new year, Facebook keeps suggesting that I share bad photos from 2010, euphemistically termed “memories.” (Okay, I concede that they are memories, but they still aren't good photos.)  Looking back on these images this week, I realized that improvement often happens even when I’m not looking.

In 2010, I decided that I wanted to learn to take better photos. Heeding the collective wisdom that practice was the most important part of becoming a photographer, I took zillions of photos of anything and everything. Armed with a budget digital camera, but without any real understanding of photography, I took many boring photos. They often looked like this:

Tecpán Guatemala, 2010

Tecpán Guatemala, 2010

Tecpán Guatemala, 2010

Tecpán Guatemala, 2010


By 2012, I could see small improvements in my photos, but I couldn’t explain why certain photos worked while others failed. I decided to take a photography class online. I learned some fundamental principles about light and a few rules for composition, including using lines, shapes, and forms. I tried to put some basic photography rules into practice. I studied other people’s photos. I practiced some more. My photography improved.

San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala, 2012

San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala, 2012

Post office, Guatemala City, Guatemala, Zone 1. 2012.

Post office, Guatemala City, Guatemala, Zone 1. 2012.

I managed to get more things right in these photos, including light, leading lines, diagonals, and depth of focus.

When I finally upgraded to a decent point-and-shoot digital camera and then to a DSLR, I tried to learn as much as I could about the settings, dials, and gizmos on my camera. I bought a tripod. Then I started learning how to shoot in RAW format and doing some basic photo editing with GIMP. I practiced framing photos in my head everywhere I went. I tried especially to improve the kinds of photos I felt the most insecure about, like portraits.

Wedding, Yucatán, 2015

Wedding, Yucatán, 2015

 I had to do a lot of selfies before I learned how to take a decent portrait photo.

 I had to do a lot of selfies before I learned how to take a decent portrait photo.

What I love about both of these photos is the light, the composition, the colors (or contrast, in the case of the wedding couple), and focus. I still struggle with portraiture, but these are some of best ones I’ve ever done. I practiced and practiced taking shots like this until I felt more confident.

All of this is to say that practicing writing seems to me much like practicing taking photos. I had to learn (and relearn and then relearn again and I am still learning) basic photography concepts to improve my pictures. I’m trying to apply the same concept to my writing. Regular practice has improved my writing skills, but my writing improved a whole lot more once I learned some basic concepts. Using the same process of learning to take better photos, I’ve started to try to learn some stuff about writing, practice, learn some more, and practice more. My process looks something like this:
Practice writing.
Read some rules about writing. Figure out how to apply them to my writing.
Practice writing.
Read other people’s great writing. Figure out how to imitate those writers’ styles.
Practice writing.
Read crappy writing. Figure out how to avoid those writers’ styles.
Practice writing.  
Learn some technical stuff about writing: grammar, syntax, punctuation. Figure out how to apply these rules..
Practice writing.
Read some books about writing style.
Practice writing.

Practice doesn’t make perfect (ever), but it does make for great improvement.  It’s easy to feel like I’m not making any progress or improving at all, but when I look back on my first attempts to take good pictures and my most recent ones, I’m pretty sure that both my photography and writing are improving, even if it’s hard to see progress in the moment.

[Header photo: Hotel Boulderado exterior, Boulder, Colorado, 2016]

Reading, Writing, and Photography

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
— William Faulkner

I love simple tricks to improve writing. I’m always delighted to show people how a few small fixes, like removing passive voice or cutting unneeded words, can tone a flabby piece of writing. Sometimes just a few easy changes produce dramatic results.

Learning to write better over the long term, however, is an ongoing process without any shortcuts.

Plenty of books about writing aim to show writers how to improve their writing. Some writing books focus on grammar, others on the craft itself. Some are helpful; many are not. Style guides offer tips that range from specific advice (”Omit needless words.”) to vague suggestions (”Create an objective voice.”). Style guides often don’t explain why a piece of writing succeeds or fails.

As William Zinsser says, we all need models. To learn to write better, we need to read great writers, study their works, and imitate their styles.

Here’s an analogy, using my process of learning photography as an example.

Photography is a skill, just like writing is a skill. A camera has knobs and dials and settings that must be learned, much as writers need to learn certain style and grammar rules. When I started learning photography, I didn’t know what I was doing and took an endless number of poor photos of boring subjects.

This is a massively boring photo. Obviously, I'm interested in the blue gate, but it's oddly placed as the subject, the light is flat, and the composition isn't working very well.

This is a massively boring photo. Obviously, I'm interested in the blue gate, but it's oddly placed as the subject, the light is flat, and the composition isn't working very well.

I read a little bit about my camera and learned the how to use all the dials and gizmos on my camera. I learned to control the focus and speed of my shots. I began to take better photos. Although I improved the technical aspects of my photography, I still didn’t understand what made for a compelling photograph. Occasionally, my efforts would result in a great photo, but I could never capture good photos with any consistency. I created good images by accident, not by design.

I started studying other people’s photos on Flickr, on Instagram, in galleries, and in photo books. I read a little bit about composition, color, and light. Whenever an image caught my attention, I analyzed it to understand why I liked it. I considered why the composition worked as a whole. I studied photos to learn what made an effective subject. I saw how photographers used lines, shapes, and forms. I studied colors and patterns. I learned about different types of light and their effects on the subject. I tried to recreate the elements I liked in other people’s photography in my own photos. I never achieved identical images, but produced better photos. I practiced and practiced to get the images I wanted. Imitating other photographers helped me improve more than learning any technical wizardry. After a few years, I’d started developing a recognizable style.

In 2013, one of my photos was chosen out of a field of 225 to be part of an exhibition of twenty photos in Guatemala. I took this photo based on its color, light, symmetry, and simplicity. I created this image with intention, not by accident. [I should also note that this photo was taken with a point and shoot camera, proving once again that good images are made with composition and light, not expensive gear.]

A way better image. Clear subject, near-symmetry, strong lines, interesting shapes, contrasting colors, and nice light.

A way better image. Clear subject, near-symmetry, strong lines, interesting shapes, contrasting colors, and nice light.

I explain all of these things about photography to point out that we can do the same thing with writing. Beginning writers have often mastered the technical aspects of writing, such as sentence structure, but lack a real voice and style. I am convinced that to write better, we should read more. As writers, we need to study the works of other writers to learn what makes for powerful writing. We’ve all read works or stories that leave us in awe. When we find an effective piece of writing, we should stop and analyze it. We can then reproduce what we like in our own writing.

It’s okay to model your writing on that of writers who are not academics: novelists, poets, or preachers. Here’s a very short example from a quote I’ve always liked:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
— Henry David Thoreau

Forgetting for a brief moment about the content, we can analyze Thoreau’s passage and look for clues about what makes this effective writing.

Thoreau immediately connects with the reader’s emotions. Who hasn’t felt like the odd person out, a person keeping pace to the beat of a different drummer? We’re then validated for being those people; Thoreau lets us know that we don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. He reassures us that we’re okay just as we are. He understands us.

He also speaks to us in language that we understand. The longest word in this passage is three syllables and ten letters long (companions). To make this passage even simpler, he could have used friends rather than companions, but we still understand his meaning. Notice also the short and direct nature of the sentences. He provides us with one idea at a time. Thoreau tells us something powerful in simple language.

The passage is chock-full of concrete nouns and verbs: man, pace, companions, drummer, step, music. We understand the passage because we picture all of these real, concrete things. Thoreau never would have used the word conceptualize when he meant ideas.

When read aloud, the words have a pleasing rhythm. The words do not sounds mechanical, as there are no nominalizations. Thoreau writes without words that end in -ism, -ion, -ment, -ize, -ization, or -ity. George Orwell, of course, parodied so much formal writing in his “translation” of the well-known verse of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes in Politics and the English Language. Simple language is often the most powerful.

How can you produce something effective like this in your own writing? Here are some suggestions:

Is there an emotional moment in your narrative? A moment of sadness, of betrayal, of rage? Can you write about it in such a way that the reader can feel a sense of empathy? Academic writers often shy away from emotional content in their writing, fearing that they’ll be judged as “biased,” or worse, an “activist.” I reject the idea that we should be writing emotionless prose; emotions are part of the human experience. An emotional connection with a reader is a powerful force.

Where in your writing are you using big words when simple ones would do the job? What’s the biggest thing you can say with the simplest words possible? Lots of writers worry that short, plain words won’t convey the meaning of their complex ideas. Try replacing big words with smaller ones and see what happens. Remember also that short sentences pack more punch than long ones. You could even try explaining your idea with 1000 of the most common English words. (Warning: more difficult than it looks!)

Along the same lines, how many concrete verbs and nouns can you use in your writing? Even when discussing ideas, concrete nouns and verbs make ideas real for the reader. How many nominalizations have you used? Can you replace them with either their verb form or another set of words altogether (e.g. compartmentalize becomes “put into a box.”)?

Read your writing out loud. Does it read like the lyrics to a good song, one where everything just sounds right? If it falls flat or makes clunking noises, pick some different words, change the punctuation, and try again. Does your writing sounds like a poor translation of a computer manual? Aim for clarity, remove needless words, and pick better verbs. Have you written sentences that are so long that you can’t take a breath? Help your readers: be generous with punctuation and clear places to pause.

Find appropriate models. Find writing you like. Figure out how the author bewitched you. Practice writing. Reproduce in your own writing the elements that you find effective and powerful. Be assured that imitating writers you like will not prevent you from developing your own style. Instead, ride on the shoulders of great writers just long enough to grow your own wings to fly.