questions

26Jun08

The fact that I find it so easy not to go to the archives must mean that I shouldn’t be a historian, right? Or does it just mean that I’m horribly exhausted and desperately need a vacation that’s not coming since I’m on a six-month research trip?

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3 Responses to “questions”

  1. Not necessarily, or rather, many professional historians are not “archive rats.” (This is not to say that you may not be on the wrong professional path–just that this difficulty is something you share with a lot of historians). I also can’t judge the vacation question. However, consider the following:

    Archives are a pain. They have bars to entrance. You are constantly observed. Often you can’t see what you want, either because it is not there, or because the person who supervises it is not there, or because there is no adequate finding guide, or for reasons that are completely unclear. You often don’t feel like you are making progress. If the archivalia are dusty you sneeze a lot. You meet strange people in archives.

    Compare this to the wonder that is London, which is interesting even when you are not spending money and full of things to be explored. And consider the wonder that is one’s internal world–always another interesting book to read or thought to contemplate. It’s a wonder that anyone goes into archives at all, really.

    You were on the right path earlier this month–that is, try to make it easy for yourself to go (whatever that takes: your favorite coffee before entering, a reward afterwards, limiting the time you spend there daily, etc.). Try never to leave when a task is finished–knowing that you are in the middle of a task and have something to pursue immediately as soon as you get there often takes away that question of “what am I going to do anyway?” Try to go regularly for shorter periods of time. When you just can’t stand things, photograph as much as you can (and take your Ipod with you if allowed and listen to a good podcast or audiobook) or order it. If you go regularly and keep ordering things, eventually, you will find a story or a theme that interests you enough to pull you in. If that hasn’t happened after six months of attempts, then you might have the wrong dissertation topic.

    Keep in mind, too, that there are many different kinds of scholars. There are some scholars whose skill lies in the ferreting out of dusty archivalia. There are others whose skill lies in conceptualizing data that we are already aware of. Some scholars are good popularizers. Some thing big and some think small. The task is finding your niche.

    You will, though, if you keep at it!

  2. I think everyone has days when they don’t want to go to the archives…I know that I’ve had more than my fair share of these lately. You are not alone in this. Stay positive and maybe just adjust your goals if you need to make them more manageable. Good luck!

  3. 3 thefrogprincess

    Servetus,
    Thanks for the great words of wisdom. I don’t have to worry about leaving the archives at the end of a task because the volumes of documents that I’m looking at are so enormous that it takes me a few weeks to go through each one, particularly the section I’m working on now where all the correspondence in each volume is relevant to the project. I think that may be part of my problem: it’s difficult to muster up motivation when the sheer volume of sources is too overwhelming. I haven’t been able to check anything off the lengthy list of sources which makes it seem like I’m making no progress. At some point, I need to figure out how I’m going to move through these documents more quickly.

    The idea of finding my niche is really resonating with me. I’m not sure the project I’m working on fits the kind of historian I am. I’d like to be the kind of historian who can work through utterly overwhelming amounts of material and come up with something amazing. But I don’t think that’s my talent; I need to figure out what my talent is, which may require adjusting the parameters of the project.

    History Enthusiast, thanks for the encouragement!


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