Some Lessons Learned from the Archive

I meant to post while I was on my archival trip, but I was so tired from my hectic days that I was unable to. When I got back, I began the task of making sure my data was saved and sorting through it. Now that I’ve had some time to regroup, I would like to discuss some of the lessons I learned during my archival trip.

  1. Adjust your tactics if you need to.

When I started my archival trip, I had an idea about the amount of material that I would be available. I was planning to take some notes on the content of annual reports and other documents while also saving photos for reference later. I quickly realized that I would not have time to take many notes because it was taking too long to do both. By the second day, I had switched to documenting the box and folder information for files and jotting down just a line or two about the document as I flipped through taking photos with my phone.

In addition to adjusting my note-taking strategy, I also had to adjust how I saved my archival photos. Before I left for my trip, I downloaded the Box app to my phone. At the archive, I would photograph documents and then upload them to Box. While the pictures were loading, I would flip back through the materials and jot down a few notes. However, during the first week of the trip, I realized that I did not have time wait for the files to upload to Box if I was going to photograph all the documents I wanted to access. By the end of the first week, I was mostly photographing while at the archive and uploading documents when I got back to the hotel. I continued this process during the second week. Because of the amount of photos I took, I had to be careful to upload photos every day and delete them from my phone’s memory, so that I would have room for the next day’s photographs.

The amount of photos I was uploading led to additional problems however. I soon realized that taking upwards of 1,500 photos per day was draining my phone’s battery very quickly. I brought my phone charger to the archive every day. One day, my phone died even though it was plugged in. I was taking so many photos that my battery continued to drop, despite the phone being plugged in. I adjusted my strategy after that to plug in my phone as soon as I arrived, so that it would stay charged the whole day.

  1. Come up with an organization system and stick to it.

I took care to make sure that my photographs were uploaded using box, folder, and file names. I labeled all boxes with [box] in my notes and in my Box. I labeled folders with [folder] in both. This will be helpful when I go to cite my material as the box and folder information will be clearly identifiable.

I would also recommend having redundant, secure storage. I uploaded my files to Box while I was there, but I also purchased a thumb drive that has duplicate copies of my files. This makes it less likely that I will lose data if there’s a problem with one of my storage systems.

  1. Look at everything that you can.

If you’re lucky enough to have your archival trip paid for by university, department or outside funding, look at everything that you can. I took the approach of documenting almost anything that could be relevant to my dissertation. Although I will not use all the documents now, some of them will be helpful for revising my dissertation into a book. One important thing to remember is that you never know what information will be valuable and when you will be able to access those materials again.

  1. Archival work is tiring, so take a break in the evening.

Academics are notoriously optimistic when it comes to time. We all think that the summer will be a time when we finally write things that we’ve been sitting on for months. Sometimes that happens, but more often, we tend to get a little done and procrastinate some more. It’s not surprising then that some of us may over-plan archival trips. I had hoped to look at some of the documents in evening or make more notes for my dissertation. However, I realized that taking photographs for 7 hours day was really tiring. When I got back to my hotel, all I wanted to do was watch HGTV, and that’s what I did. I’m thankful that I took that break because it left me more energized the next day to get all the files that needed.

  1. Have a document to take notes on observations and thoughts that occur while you’re looking at the materials.

As I mentioned before, I had a document where I took notes about the files I looked at, where they were located (box and folder), and brief notes about what those files were. I also had a separate document that I called “archival thoughts.” I had initially brought a paper notebook that I thought would serve this purpose, but I ended up using my computer because it was faster than making notes in a notebook.

In my “thoughts” document, I made notes about overall trends that I noticed or information that might be relevant to my dissertation that I hadn’t thought about before. By looking through such a vast trove of information, I was able to gain insights on how to approach my topic that I would not have had without flipping through so many documents. Even though I wasn’t able to take comprehensive notes on the documents while I was there, I was still able to glean some inspiration from the vast amount of information I reviewed over my two week trip.

Concluding Thoughts

These are a few insights that I had while at the archive. Some of them reaffirmed what I had read about archival research before making my visit, such as focusing on organization. Reading about archival trips can help you prepare, but you learn a lot by being in the archive. I hope that others will be able to use this as they advance their own archival research. Finally, when you’re done with your research, thank the archivist and the archival team. You should thank them before you leave, but I also recommend sending a thank you email after your trip.

“The Allure of the Archives”

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.

Happy Writing!


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,”

American Historical Association, Committee for Graduate Students, “Some Tips and Suggestions for Your Research Trip,”




Planning for Dissertation Writing

A few weeks ago I saw a dissertation timeline on “The Professor Is In.” The timeline, created by Kathryn Allan at Academic Editing Canada, provides a list of questions to help students formulate a timeline for their dissertation.

Over the past few days, I’ve been using the questions in the timeline to make concrete deadlines for myself. I’ve begun writing chapter 2 of my dissertation, but I still have a long way to go. I will be doing archival research at the end of May and beginning of June. Between now and then, I plan to do some more reading and writing on my dissertation chapters. The problem that many students face when they begin to write their dissertation (or thesis) is that they no longer have a class schedule or hard deadlines to serve as a motivation. Although I initially scoffed at the idea of a “syllabus” for my dissertation, the questions on the timeline did get me thinking about three important factors for writing and planning a dissertation.

Create hard deadlines 

When I initially finished my prospectus, I had to begin the challenge of writing my dissertation. I had to plan out the largest project that I have ever undertaken. Over and over again people advise to pick hard deadlines, and it sounds easy enough. However, dissertation chapters, especially for qualitative scholars, can be long affairs. Rather than picking a hard deadline for the end draft of a chapter, break it down. Create deadlines for the research. How many books will you plan to read? How long will it take you to read them? Set deadlines for every step of the way. I’m the kind of person who can get lost in reading and researching, so setting a deadline for when to stop reading and researching is crucial.

You should work back from key campus deadlines to create your hard deadlines. It’s no good to realize that you need to defend in three weeks when you’re not ready. Universities often set deadlines a year in advance or keep relatively similar deadlines, allowing you to approximate when you need to defend to graduate. Being aware of campus deadlines using a planner, Google Calendar, or your phone will help you to stay on track. I prefer using both my phone and a physical planner. My phone allows me to set alarms to remind me to do something. My planner serves as a physical reminder and a checklist.

Get Organized 

When writing a dissertation, you will need to sort through an immense amount of data. It is critical to have a consistent system on how to get through that data. I want to go through a couple of things that have helped me so far. First, I recommend using a citation software. My preference is Zotero. I have saved everything that I read for my preliminary exam and my dissertation in Zotero. It has a tagging system that allows you to tag resources and view all resources with a particular tag. This is useful to keep track of  different kinds of readings. For example, if I wanted to pull up all the readings I’ve done on financial regulation. In addition, you can save all resources for a particular project in a folder. You can search particular folders or all of your resources. Zotero is a great tool that has served me well in the past few years.

Second, I recommend a consistent note-taking system. During my preliminary exams, I preferred to hand-write notes. It kept me focused on note-taking while I was reading. I kept my notes in a binder and used page tabs to keep track of notes for particular questions. When I needed a refresher on certain notes, I could flip through to find the relevant notes. This worked reasonably well for my prelims. However, as I moved on from my prelims, I felt like my notebook was messy and not organized enough to get me through the next step.

As I was looking to adjust my note-taking for my dissertation, I really wanted something digital, that I could easily “ctrl + f” to search through. I use Microsoft Word for my writing, so I’ve decided to make a Microsoft Word document. To some, a giant Microsoft Word document sounds like a huge headache. To more easily overcome that, I’ve created a system to keep track of my resources. When I read a something, I first record in Zotero. Then, I take the citation (I use Chicago Style full notes) and put it into my Word Document for my notes. Finally, use the “heading” function to the turn the citation into a heading. This creates a heading visible on the navigation panel on the left, so that I can easily see all the headings for my readings. The heading function also works well for creating sections and subsections of dissertation chapters.

Third, you must have a data storage system. I once knew someone who almost lost an entire draft of their dissertation proposal because they didn’t backup. You don’t want to be in that situation. Most people use an online backup storage system like Box or Dropbox. You can also use a hard backup system for any files on your computer. I use Box because students at my university receive a free account, and I have a hard backup of the files on my computer. In Box, have a folder for my dissertation materials with subfolders for writing and research. This enables me to keep track of important research files, such as copies of journal articles.

Keep Track of Hours 

Most students who are dissertating also have other obligations like teaching, research, and service. Teaching assistants at my university are salaried, but our appointments are based on how many hours a week we should work. Many students go over this and resist tracking how many hours they’re teaching. They love teaching and want to spend as much time as it takes to make their course good. While this attitude has a good heart, it contributes to overwork on campus. We can love teaching and respect our time simultaneously.

It is important to keep track of hours either formally or informally. This helps you know whether you’ve been giving too much to one area. Hours will vary from week to week. For example, the week before an exam may have heavier teaching requirements than weeks earlier in the semester. As long as those hours average out to the correct amount, that’s okay. Where the hours start to get out of hand is when you’re regularly working more hours in one area than you should and losing out on valuable research and writing time.

As tempting as it is to simply avoid contact with other humans and work on your dissertation on a Saturday night, keeping track of hours can help you maintain your sanity by being sure that you aren’t overworking yourself in any area of your academic life. The best way to formally keep track of your hours is an excel file or other spreadsheet software. A Google sheet would be easy to update regardless of where you’re working from. This form from the University of Illinois, Chicago, Graduate Employees’ Organization shows how you can track teaching. You could add rows to keep track of research, writing, and service too.

Using the dissertation timeline has helped me feel like I can meet my deadlines. I’ve created a new reading list and recorded everything in Zotero in advance. This will enable me to cite accurately and quickly when I start writing. Whatever your organization system is, find something that works for you and stick to it. Once you decide how you want to take notes, it’s easier to continue taking notes the same way than the change mid-stream.

Happy writing!

Do we need finance?

The 2007-2008 financial crisis prompted a lot of criticism and questions. It spawned multiple movies dramatizing the banks and bankers responsible for the crash. It was even partially responsible for the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 that were monitored as part of counterterrorism efforts. The financial crisis has marked for generations of young Americans what excess and greed looks like. Because of this, there is a strong tendency to condemn finance writ large and to see it as a modern development. I would like to challenge the narrative of modernity in finance by providing some perspective on the history of finance.

We often think of finance as asset-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and a host of other financial instruments that have expanded the realm of finance in the past few decades. However, our mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit cards, and other financial tools are also part of finance. The loan, a basic component of a financial agreement, has existed for centuries. In Money Changes Everything, William N. Goetzmann makes the case that finance is the basis of civilization. I wanted to discuss three things from the book that I thought were interesting: the study of financial history, time, and relationships in finance.

First, I would like to briefly discuss the study of financial history. I have taken many history courses over my more than two decades of formal education. In the Western Civilization courses I have taken, I scarcely recall discussing finance as an integral part of the Roman Empire. The role of finance in the expansion of empire, the availability of loans and credit, takes second seat to mythology, philosophy, and the basis of governance. While the contribution of the Roman Republic to the development of our own Republican system is immensely valuable, we often miss that the basis of our financial system was developed thousands of years ago (in fact, in the West, we can trace it to the Phoenicians before the Romans, according to Goetzmann).

Secondly, finance is about building relationships through time. Along with finance, major civilizations developed calendars. This is no mere coincidence. Goetzmann states, “Financial contracts are typically struck between someone who wants to shift value to the present and someone who wants to shift value to the future” (p.5). The ability to make an agreement that spans over weeks, months, or years requires a common conception of time. If I loan you money, I need to know when to expect repayment, and you need to know when you to pay it back. In Bob’s Burgers, Bob Belcher jokes, “What is past due?” to try to get out of a late payment on his mortgage. This gag is funny in part because we have an agreement with our creditors about when a payment is due and understand how long we have to pay that sum. However, Bob’s question is actually fundamental to the practice of finance. With smartphones that automatically update with time and date, it’s easy to forget that a calendar measuring time is an important feat.

The third idea I would like to address is that finance allows relationships between parties beyond familial relationships. Early systems of writing were used to create financial agreements (and customer complaints). With written language and a unified conception of time, a lender could loan money to someone outside of their family unit. Relationships could be built among customers and business owners, as well as trading relationships between different cultures. Finance creates an ability to trust that someone else will pay you because you have a written agreement, as well as trust that you will be charged appropriately for your loan. Of course, trust could also be misplaced. Some of the earliest financial laws were laws prohibiting usury, overcharging on loans, specifically compound interest.

The history of finance shows that crises happen again and again, but also that finance offers opportunities from housing to businesses to international trade. Importantly, finance allows us to develop agreements that help us plan for future needs. Finance now is often about “quantitative models of the future,” but the basic financial agreement is also about the future. Although it seems odd to say, a financial agreement contains an element of hope. Financial agreements are often abused and misused, but they also create the opportunity for first homes, for new cars, and for business dreams to come true. Of course, many people make financial agreements out of fear or desperation. Finance is a tool that has helped build a multitude of civilizations globally. As we look to the future, we must ask what values we want placed in our financial system.

“You have to be selfish”

I am currently working on my dissertation, and I want to give a shot at blogging about the research and writing process. Some posts will be about things I find or read about while researching. Other posts will be about the writing process and academia more generally. For my first post, I wanted to address “walling off” time for research and writing.

In introductory graduate seminars, graduate students are often told to prioritize our time. This need for prioritization is reinforced through the academic experience by faculty and older graduate students. Typically, this conversation involves discussing the three priorities of academic work: research, teaching, and service. All three are important for achieving success, although research and teaching rank first. There are certainly minutiae related to this. Graduate students and faculty who are more interested in teaching jobs will prioritize teaching, while those who want to work for primarily research institutions will prioritize research. This is not to say that there are not many academics who do both research and teaching well – there are – but this is the typical story that graduate students are told when they first arrive to their programs.

Further on their degree paths, graduate students are reminded of the importance of “walling off” time for writing and researching our dissertations. Faculty and older graduate students often advise “write every day,” regardless of what their actual writing process is like. For me, this advice is not that useful because I tend to read or research a lot and then write a lot. We are told to be protective of our time and limit our other activities. Social lives, teaching, even sleep, are secondary to researching and writing our dissertations.

Recently, I heard a new (to me) formulation of the perennial “walling off” advice. I was told: “You have to be selfish.” This advice has stuck with me differently than “walling off” or “writing everyday.” As I was asked by friends for help with certain tasks, I began to ask myself, “but shouldn’t I be selfish right now? I need to work on my dissertation.” I resolved that some things were more important than my self-interest in my dissertation, at least at the moment. However, I want to think more about this comment.

In many ways, I am a stereotypical woman in academia. I do a lot of service. I serve on departmental and campus committees. I volunteer with my union. I also do community activism with a variety of groups. In an attempt to prioritize my time for writing my dissertation, I have cut out a lot of these activities, and I plan to cut more as the semester ends. I know cognitively that this “selfishness” is good for my degree path. It is good for me to make sure that I have time to write and research. I haven’t put years toward my degree to fail now.

At the same time, it feels like I’m losing something of myself. I was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and attended a Catholic school oriented toward social justice. Community service has always been part of my life. My parents were and are deeply involved in many aspects of their community. My high school even required a “Social Justice” class in which community service was part of the course requirements. Bridging the gap between the public and academia has been one of the things that is most important to me as an academic. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a group discussion on Going Public and enjoyed reflecting on the joys and complications of being a public intellectual. Thus, being “selfish” by compromising service feels like a shattering of my soul.

In addition to forsaking my Catholic service roots, I also feel as though I am fighting against the tide of what many women are taught in our culture. Women and girls often feel a desire to please other people, regardless of what they want. Perhaps this is why women perform more service in academia and why women are asked to perform more emotional labor in the classroom. Some academics advise doing minimal teaching labor to leave more time for research and writing. However, failing to perform emotional labor in teaching might be a detriment to my student evaluations. Although some academics might rank teaching as less than research, teaching evaluations are important, even at research institutions.

I initially rankled at the thought of being “selfish.” How could I just be “selfish” like that? I care about other people. I care about my friends. I realized that this task may be made particularly hard by the values that I’ve learned to prioritize; other women may face this same divided loyalty. Which self should I be loyal to? The academic who needs to do work? Or the self that wants to help others?

Yet, the dichotomy between the “selfish” and “selfless” academic also seems flawed. Academics often posit that they are doing good for the world. Whether we are acting “selfishly” by preserving time depends on the perspective one takes on research and writing. I still dream of being able to a public intellectual. I hope that one day my dissertation will benefit other people. The potential value of my dissertation research means that sacrificing my service now for long-term gains is a reasonable trade. My own “selfish” behavior now may not be selfish in the long-term.