The title of my post is taken from a book of the same title by Arlette Farge. I highly recommend it for any one who wants insight into archival research. My scholarly research is primarily critical communication within the political economy of communication tradition. My dissertation research will primarily be archival research. For my dissertation, I will be examining General Motors’ (GM) public relations and advertising in the 1990s and 2000s, with a particular focus on the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC). I would like to discuss my approach to timelines for archival research, in preparation for my own research trip next week.
For scholars interested in communication and culture, it is important keep in mind the author, the audience, purpose of communication, and “the contemporary reception of the work” (Gaillet). This means that I will be considering the context when I am looking at advertising and PR materials. Ads and PR materials are produced by a company for a specific purpose, so my challenge will be to make a critical argument about what those documents tell us.
At this point in my research process, I am in the data collection stage. I am gathering the primary data that I will base the analysis in my dissertation on. With an archive, there is so much data that there is always a fear that information will be missed or left out. Arlette Farge describes the importance of notetaking saying, “Note taking, after all, necessarily implies prior decisions about what is important, and what is archival surplus to be left aside.” Cataloging archival materials is particularly important for keeping track of materials and their meaning. Many archivists make multiple trips to their archive. While I don’t have multiple trips planned right now, I do have an extended trip planned. This will enable me to collect a lot of data and organize it as I go.
Below, I’ve outlined stages and a timeline for archival research. I’ve also provided some references on archival research and linked to outside pages with additional information.
Proposal Stage (Months to Years Before)
When I was working on my dissertation proposal, I thought carefully about what data I would need to analyze to answer my research questions. What archives would could address my questions? Are they accessible? Can I view the finding aids online? Many university archives have digitized finding aids, making it easy to plan research trips. If finding aids are not available, it is important to consider that you will have to spend more time acquainting yourself with the archive. Not all scholars examine archival research this far in advance, but planning helped me to feel comfortable with my project at the proposal stage.
A Few Months Before
After your project proposal is ready, you should begin more concrete plans for visiting the archives. The first step is to call or email the archivist to tell them about your research. If finding aids were not available online, you should ask the archivist if they have any guides or finding aids available. I was able to talk with the archivist months ago and get more information about archival materials than was available online. If the archive you plan to visit is not a university archive, there may be accessibility issues. For example, some corporate archives require pre-approval of projects to access. Other archives may have limited hours or may require advance notice of your visit.
A Month to a Few Weeks Before
At this point in the process, you should have finalized your project proposal and completed more reading. Even if you already contacted the archivist, email or call the archivist to remind them about your research trip. If you have not already, this is a good time to ask questions about the reading room policies. It is important to know the hours of the archive, if you can make copies (some materials may not be able to be copied, regardless of general policies), how much copies cost, whether you can bring a flash drive to download digital documents, and other information that will help you make the most of your archival trip. If there are limitations on copying and accessing materials, you will want to keep that in mind when planning your research. You may want to access those materials first and plan for a careful notetaking strategy, so that you do not miss out on important information.
A Week Before
The week before your trip, review reading room policies. If you have access to finding aids or guides, decide what you will look at first. Consider how you are going to take notes and organize material, particularly if you cannot photocopy materials or download digital files. If you finish your research early, are there other archives that you can visit? Are there additional materials that you may need access to that you have not asked about? You may need to send a final email to the archivist to ask last-minute questions about additional materials available or accessing certain materials. Although it may seem like you are bugging the archivist, you will thank yourself later because it will keep you from wasting time during your archival trip and missing out on important materials.
Archives allow us to glimpse the past through materials that are often stuck out of sight in boxes and binders. The allure of the archive is that you never know exactly what it holds or what shape the material will be in when you get there. Archivists can help you sort through the material before and during your trip, making the discovery process easier. While you are at your archive, be sure to thank the archivist for their time. Their work makes ours possible.
Lynée Lewis Gaillet, “Archival Survival, Navigating Historical Research,” in Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, ed. Alexis E. Ramsey et al. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), 28 – 39.
Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).
Society of American Archivists, “Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research,” https://www2.archivists.org/usingarchives
American Historical Association, Committee for Graduate Students, “Some Tips and Suggestions for Your Research Trip,” https://www.historians.org/Documents/About%20AHA%20and%20Membership/ResearchTripTips.pdf