“Maximizing (and Enjoying) Research Time in the Archives” by Andrew Burkett

Andrew Burkett
Assistant Professor of English, Union College
Roundtable Talk:  “Researching in the Archives”
NASSR 2013, Boston University
August 9, 2013
11:30-1:00 PM; Conference Auditorium


“Maximizing (and Enjoying) Research Time in the Archives”


I wanted to begin my brief remarks today first by thanking Kirstyn and her co-organizers for putting together this exciting roundtable and for inviting me to share some of the story of my own experiences in archival research as well as some ideas about how we might all approach future archival work a bit more efficiently and with, perhaps, a bit more enjoyment.  In doing so, I’m going to limit these remarks to thinking about how to maximize—and to appreciate more fully—one’s time once at the archival research site.  And I wanted to note too from the start here that I’m basing these insights largely on my own experiences while working with the Charles Darwin Papers while a Visiting Scholar in the Manuscripts Room at the University of Cambridge’s University Library (or the UL, as it’s affectionately abbreviated).  So, these notes are made in relation mainly to my work at a single-author archive, and some of these ideas thus might not translate seamlessly into other forms of archival research.  That said, I’ve worked to keep my remarks broad enough so as to speak—as best as possible—about “Researching in the Archives.”

A few very brief notes about my archival research project:  I spent roughly two years—on and off—completing the research for the final chapter of my dissertation (which focuses on the role of the idea of “chance” in nineteenth-century cultural and scientific production) at the UL, where I was looking at Darwin’s unpublished manuscripts concerned with the concept of species variation and evolution.  Before leaving Duke and even up until my first days of arrival at Cambridge, I envisioned my archival research as an unearthing of what I—at the time—speculated to be Darwin’s investments in Romantic poetic forms and philosophies, and I hoped to substantiate that thesis by uncovering in the unpublished papers evidence (textual, conceptual, etc.) of an indebtedness to Romantic notions and representations of the aleatory.  Unfortunately, though, I found very little evidence of this sort, and while some of these research endeavors were indeed fruitful to some extent, I found myself moving into something like a state of panic, as my assumptions about what I would find among the papers were rather quickly overturned.  And this leads me to my first major point about working in the archive—be more than willing to adjust your research program as and when you are in the act of investigation.  The more rigid I became in my initial weeks to seek out such evidence, the more I realized that I wasn’t paying the archival materials the respect that they deserved—indeed, that they demanded.  So, I feel that while we certainly need to bring with us expectations of what would be successful outcomes of research, we also need to be able to adjust to the contingencies of the archive.  Once I began to let go of that desire to find what I believed I was seeking, I actually started to stumble upon so many new forms of evidence that took my work in radically novel and exciting directions.

Fortunately, these initial interests led me to uncover—by chance—a largely unpublished sector of the archive dealing with what is referred to by the curators of the Darwin Papers as Darwin’s “Botanical Arithmetic” drafts.  Of course, I won’t go into the details of this find, but I’ll note briefly here that, while Darwin made these numerous and extensive statistical calculations involving the bio-geographical distribution of continental plant species just before the 1859 publication of the Origin of Species, only a few scholars had investigated, at the time of my research, Darwin’s botanical studies that played such a crucial role in his discussion of the key evolutionary concept of ‘variation under nature’ in Chapter II of the Origin.  So my point here, which builds off of my last, is that we must be prepared to evolve as archival researchers if we are going to make new discoveries in unpublished materials.  And this leads to my next piece of advice as well:  this sector of the archive opened wide before me—which was obviously exciting and promising—but as it did so, I was quite overwhelmed with the number of volumes and boxes of documents dedicated to these complex mathematical calculations.  I was also extremely surprised to find that even with an author as famous and celebrated as Darwin that some of these materials were impossible to seek out via electronic research methods and that I had to do the leg work of catalogue searches and even sometimes had to stumble around blindly through volumes and boxes in this sector—page by page, or leaf by leaf—as a number of the boxes were (surprisingly) not fully marked or catalogued, given the relative obscurity of these drafts.  So, part of my second major point here is to expect at some point—and even perhaps for several days at a time—to be overwhelmed completely by the avalanche of information that you will likely trigger in your work, regardless of your project.  The question then becomes:  how does one move through such mountains of information to seek out those five or ten documents that will be most important for your argument and that you might wish to transcribe or even pay large sums to have imaged?  My answer here is a quite simple one:  befriend the archivists and curators and even other researches working among the papers in which you are interested.  Upon finding these materials, I quickly sought out and turned to Adam Perkins, the Curator of Scientific Manuscripts at the UL, and he proved to be an invaluable source of information about the micro-sectors of the “Botanical Arithmetic” drafts that made the most sense for me to look into first (and even provided me with an order through which to move among the papers) based upon the more global concerns of my chapter focusing on the concept of chance—and more specifically to Darwin—the development of his theory of organic variation.  Adam let me know that (by chance) David Kohn, one of the few scholars who had studied and written about these papers, had been seated only a few tables away from me for several weeks during my work in the Manuscripts Room.

This serendipity leads me to my third and final set of remarks—personal observations really—about working in the archives:  really do allow yourself to enjoy your time while searching through the materials.  David was more than excited to talk with me about my project and to give me advice about things such as where I should look next in the archive and ways to proceed efficiently with the work (many of which I’m borrowing from in my own remarks today), and I soon realized after befriending Adam and David that archival research sites are just as—or perhaps even more “alive,” so to speak—as any of our other work sites (e.g., our departments, our classrooms, our offices, etc.).  Archival centers are extremely dynamic, unpredictable, and—as such—exciting places:  they can certainly be intimidating and overwhelming but, more often than not, if we are willing to accept their contingencies and surprises, they are almost always prepared to greet us with hospitality and—most certainly—with vitality.

[Editor’s note: published with permission of the author]



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