Into the Archive: A Student Advisor Discovers Her Purpose in a File Drawer
Archival work never ceases to surprise me. While many experiences during my undergraduate and graduate career have taken me to places such as Savannah, GA, New Orleans, LA, and Rome, Italy, I made one of my most significant academic discoveries in the basement of the Jennie King Mellon Library at Chatham University in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. While sifting through an original April 1883 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, one of the first magazines published for women in America, I came across a quotation that has significantly inflected my scholarship: "Music is a kind of inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that." – Carlyle. I never would have found this archival gem had it not been for the encouragement from my professor to dive into archives, an opportunity that is not afforded to many undergraduate students. This quotation is a lens on American literature and culture from the nineteenth-century to today. For my academic purpose, this quotation helped to fine-tune my close readings of music in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series as well as Godey's in terms of constructing home and nationhood through song, both within and outside of language. As a recipient of the Summer 2012 Archival Research Grant from Duquesne University, I have been able to expand my archival work from Chatham's library basement to the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
The Library of Congress isn't your typical stroll through a library to quickly (and electronically) pick up some texts to take home with you. Before arriving, I thought I knew what to expect, but quickly had to pick up on the unique culture of one of the most amazing libraries in the world. This particular archival expedition included metal detectors, travelling through underground tunnels, sifting through eighteenth-century military regiment manuals, and sharpening my research skills with an endearingly grumpy elderly Russian male librarian.
Interdisciplinary research can prove to be difficult at any library because there are so many directions to go in. My initial plan was to expand two research projects: explore more nineteenth-century American parlor sheet music to broaden my Wilder and Godey's research, as well as begin preliminary searches for my work with Mark Twain's short stories. I quickly learned that I bit off more than I could chew, especially for the two days I had planned. I spent much of my time in the rare book collections, sifting through rare galley proofs with (fellow nineteenth-century Americanists contain your drooling!) Twain's editing notes. After visiting the music library and being mentored to narrow my searches from nineteenth-century piano parlor and military music to more specific examples, I found myself back in the rare book collections combing through regimental military texts from 1794. My archival research at the Library of Congress exponentially expanded my ongoing work within music in literature. Regardless of how you identify as a literature scholar—from a Medievalist to Shakespearean to twentieth-century Americanist to Queer Studies—archival work is an enriching experience that puts the values of different time periods directly into your hands.
Some important tips for aspiring archival researchers that helped me:
- Check with librarians before you arrive at the archival site and let them know what you want to look at so that they can prepare the specific materials you want to explore.
- Schedule your time wisely—if not, you could spend hours in a reading room that you've budgeted for elsewhere!
- Know the architecture of the building. The Library of Congress includes three buildings, all connected by underground tunnels for researchers.
- Always pencil, never pen. Librarians forbid pens in the vicinity of rare and old books for fear of damage.
- Take a camera. However, check with the librarian before you take some shots.
- Have a research game plan, but be open to change. We all like to go to the shelves to see the books that surround our target; take advantage of this unique opportunity when doing archival work. You really never know what you'll find!