Surviving the long research trip

I’m spending much of my day today preparing and packing for a two and a half week long dissertation research trip to California. I’ll visit both the Huntington Library in San Marino and California State University at Fresno’s Henry Madden Library to view collections related to Albert Kimsey Owen’s Topolobampo Cooperative Colony. Along the way I’ll work on organizing my research for writing, perform some website work on evenings and weekends for my summer income, visit a few friends in the Pasadena area, and hopefully do a bit of exploring around town. In short, I’ll employ all the strategies I’ve developed over my graduate career to make the most of my research time and money. So until my next opportunity to write a post arrives, I’ve re-posted my popular “Surviving the long research trip” piece below for all of you making the most of the last bit of summer research time. Safe travels and productive work!

Surviving the long research trip

Emerging from a long research trip with your sanity intact can be tricky. Anyone who’s traveled knows not only how quickly expenses add up, but also how quickly time flies when you’d desperately like more of it. Other factors associated with travel – like a disrupted personal routine, the potential digestional hazards of “road food,” the high correlation between an affordable hotel and a bad hotel, and delayed access to good coffee – can make the long research trip seem like something to first dread, then endure, and finally recover from.

Research trips are a critical part of grad school, at least if you hope to graduate anytime soon, and an extended research trip can be the best way to get the most bang for that buck you may or may not be getting reimbursed for, but lengthy research trips can be fun too. In fact, having fun is one of the simplest ways to put difficult tasks in perspective, reduce stress, and prevent burnout. Contrary to popular (academic) belief the long research trip need not be a grueling ordeal that you soldier through macho style. Over the years I’ve developed some basic strategies that help me not only survive the long research trip, but live the days in a way that enables me to make the best possible use of precious research time.

Plan ahead. This seems like a no-brainer. Of course you must plan ahead to book your airfare, rental car, hotel, and so on but did you cover all your bases?  Most grad students know better than to show up to an archive without having at least searched the online catalog and communicated their research needs to an archivist or two well in advance. (For more on this see my post A good archivist goes a long way.) But you should also develop the habit of nosing around for potential sources whenever you travel in a professional capacity. I’m not advocating you disrupt a vacation by taking a research detour, rather that you should never go to a conference, attend a seminar, or give a guest lecture without checking for relevant holdings in libraries and archives nearby. Failing to do your homework in advance means missing out on easy opportunities to maximize your research time, stretch those travel dollars, justify your expenses, and reduce your overall stress about the research process.

Give yourself over to the idea and get organized. Yes, you’ll have to work really hard for long hours with on-the-go food, grossly abbreviated lunch breaks, limited sleep, and many demands on your attention but it will only be for a certain amount of time. Mentally frame the experience as an exception to your usual schedule, one that you will make the best of, benefit a great deal from, and thank yourself for later. Then work out a detailed daily schedule that incorporates the ways your travel itinerary and library/archive hours of operation will dictate your routine as well as the ways this schedule may need to flex to adjust to unanticipated events. Try to leave some maneuvering room for unexpected archival discoveries, delays from getting lost in an unfamiliar city, opportunities to network, morning/evening organization of photocopies/digital notes, and so forth. A well-planned schedule is key to effective time management, and recognizing in advance that you’ll need to make room for adjustments will help you set reasonable boundaries when you encounter new demands on your time.

Know thyself. Know your personal habits and preferences and don’t be afraid to assert them when you know it’s in your best interest. (This goes for grad school in general too.) You know what you need to perform at your best. Long research trips will stretch you to your max, mentally and sometimes physically as well. Acknowledge this and think about what tactics you’ll need to use to keep yourself in peak research mode. If it’s a quiet, calm evening at the end of an exhausting, busy day so be it. Occasional exceptions must be made, of course, when you recognize a unique opportunity to extend your professional network or examine an uncatalogued collection, for example, but be sure any exception is exceptional and not just a cave to someone else’s idea of a great post-research evening. Know when to put your needs first, and carefully communicate your decisions to any invitation-extenders, travel companions, or roommates.

Consider the wonders of a microwave and mini-fridge. Again, you have to know yourself here to decide if this is for you. I am personally in the habit of eating a good bit of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains every day. I feel “off” when I can’t. Same for exercise. Although my research trips usually end in me not being able to maintain anything close to my normal workout routine a microwave and mini-fridge go a long way toward helping me eat more of what I’m used to, which makes me feel good and in turn reduces some of the stress of travel. It also cuts down on expenses associated with eating out. Yes, you’ll spend on average an extra ten bucks per night to get a hotel room equipped with these wonder appliances, but you’ll save at least that much each day in restaurant tabs.

Do something new. Going somewhere new or doing something new is one of the primary ways I like to treat myself and take a breather while on a long research trip. Sundays are a good day for this since most research libraries and archives are closed on Sundays. If you’re on an extended research trip, chances are you’ll be out of town at least one Sunday and a brief excursion is generally a far better use of your time than just sleeping in or watching t.v. in your hotel room all day. Sometimes I plan something extra to do in advance; other times I wait until I’m in the area to find out what the locals recommend. I rarely miss an opportunity to integrate some personal travel and fun into my research trips, and I always emerge refreshed, refocused, and better for it. You can do more than merely survive your research trips. You can and should find ways to enjoy them too.

Back from the Bosch and back in the saddle again

Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again
Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again. Click and it’s in your head. You’re welcome.

Traveling for weeks at a time can be pretty disorienting. It takes you out of your normal routine, places you in unfamiliar situations, demands a lot of physical and emotional energy, generally means your free time is out the window, and can lead to a big game of catch up when you return home. All of this was true for my experience at the 2012 edition of the Bosch Archival Seminar for Young Historians, which I attended from September 2nd to the 16th, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The Bosch was an immensely valuable experience that I will carry with me throughout my academic career, and I’d like to use my next few posts to share some of the details, insight, and information I gained. To begin: what the seminar was about and a tour of the Manseuto Library at the University of Chicago.

The seminar is a yearly cooperative venture between the German Historical Institute (GHI), the University of Chicago’s Department of History, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, and the Robert Bosch Foundation. The 2012 iteration of the seminar brought together doctoral students from a wide variety of backgrounds with the aim of (1) encouraging transnational collaboration and (2) providing participants with an “inside” look at how an array of historical institutions function and are organized. The seminar was led by Dr. Misha Honeck, a Research Fellow at the GHI, whose hard work and enthusiasm kept us all afloat as we made our way through libraries, archives, and museums in Chicago, Madison, Boston, and Washington, D.C. One of our first official stops after becoming acquainted with one another and allowing the international scholars to shake off some of their jetlag was the Mansueto Library.

One of the highlights of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (aside from its swank architecture) is its automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS). 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Not only is this system very impressive from a technological standpoint; it’s also a prominent experiment in ways libraries and archives can confront the problems of preservation and storage while still providing scholars ready access to research materials. The ASRS allows the Mansueto Library’s patrons to access materials much more quickly than they would be able to at a library or archive that has been forced, for spatial or financial reasons, to store some of its collections offsite. While a request for materials can take days at an institution with offsite storage, it usually takes about 15 minutes or less at the Mansueto. As impressive as the ASRS is though, both it and offsite storage pose browsability problems for patrons. Whenever direct access to the materials is cut off, serendipitous discoveries and connections made via “wandering the stacks” become endangered. A “nearby on the shelf” button in the catalog search results makes up for part of this experience, but not all of it. Still, it was exciting to see the Mansueto’s work to confront a significant problem facing many historical institutions today.

In my next post, I’ll discuss our Bosch group’s thesis workshop and our day with the archivists and curators of the Newberry Library.

A good archivist goes a long way

And so do reasonable archive policies. After the Thanksgiving holiday, I took a trip down to the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas to conduct some research for my dissertation at the Leonard H. Axe Library. Of particular interest to me was the library’s Special Collections Department‘s holdings on Julius Wayland. Julius Augustus Wayland (1854-1912) was a renowned socialist in his day. He was the founding editor of the newspapers The Coming Nation and Appeal to Reason and also helped found the Ruskin Co-operative Association, a utopian colony in Tennessee. If you recognize Wayland’s name at all I imagine it’s in association with Appeal to Reason, as this was the paper that hired Upton Sinclair to do an investigative piece on the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Sinclair, of course, later became famous for penning a novel based upon his work–The Jungle.

Wayland committed suicide in 1912, but he lived a life that is representative of the experiences of many 19th century radical reformers. He was inspired by the major works of Laurence Gronlund and Edward Bellamy, who both advocated a “softened” form of socialism that emphasized brotherly cooperation over class division and conflict as the solution to the ills of a society experiencing jarring transformations. This “softened” socialism, often termed Christian socialism due to its adherents’ rejection of atheism and reliance on Christian rhetoric to promote their beliefs, appealed to many 19th century American social reformers. Christian socialism was not only much more palatable given the negative popular associations attached to socialism; it was also viewed by adherents as a means to make society more just, return Christianity to its “proper” place in society, and redirect the United States to its “true” path.

I could babble on about all of this for quite some time–it IS my passion after all–but my primary purpose in writing this post is actually to discuss how grateful I am that the institution I visited had such a capable and helpful archivist (Mr. Randy Roberts) AND some very reasonable policies with regard to their materials. It is one thing to locate an institution with the materials one needs for their research and quite another to arrange a visit, actually find all the materials one needs, be able to examine all the materials thoroughly, and be certain one has not overlooked anything. Research funding is crucial. All scholars know that without funding, one is extremely limited in the scholarship she or he is able to produce (and hence the jobs she or he is eligible to obtain). I was fortunate enough to secure some funding for my trip and naturally wanted to make the most of it. I was able to do so (1) because Mr. Roberts was kind enough to sort through and pull materials he believed would be of interest to me and (2) because the library has a liberal policy regarding the use of digital cameras in its archives.

Experience has taught me that it is always a good idea to communicate with a librarian or archivist at the institution one intends to visit well in advance of the actual trip. At large, busy institutions sometimes the best one can do is e-mail or speak with an intern, assistant, or student worker, but whenever possible one should attempt to make contact with an experienced archivist or librarian. When I visited the Newberry Library in Chicago, for example, I was able to gain the contact information of a leading archivist through a mentor. This turned out to be critical to the success of my trip, as the materials I wanted to examine were completely uncatalogued and required the inside knowledge of an archivist to locate. For my visit to Pittsburg State’s Leonard H. Axe Library, I communicated with Mr. Roberts several times in the months leading up to my visit and when I arrived he had most of what I needed waiting on a cart for me to review. Most institutions–particularly the smaller ones–appreciate any enthusiasm about their collections. Treating Mr. Roberts with a great deal of respect and constantly expressing my gratitude for assistance certainly didn’t hurt either. Enthusiasm, humility, and professionalism can go a long way in aiding the budding scholar in her or his research.

I was also very pleased (and relieved) that the Leonard H. Axe Library permitted the use of both laptops and digital cameras in its Special Collections Department. Both were instrumental in enabling me to sift through all of the materials I needed in the time–and with the money–I had available. Many archival institutions still forbid the use of cameras, fearing either damage to their materials or that allowing visitors to photograph their holdings will lead to wholesale “bootlegging” of the past. I suppose both these fears are not entirely unfounded. There are certainly materials that ought not be handled or imaged in the original, save by trained professionals, and there are probably some dishonest researchers out there who would be unscrupulous in their use of imaged materials. Think of the stories of archive visitors tearing relevant pages out of books to take them home or making notes in the margins of centuries old tomes. I am nonetheless suspicious of the claim that allowing researchers to bring their digital cameras into the archive will spell the end of archives as we know them. Will some abuse the images they were allowed to capture? Yes, certainly, but these individuals will likely be made to answer at some point and find not only their professionalism but also their trustworthiness as a scholar in question. Does this mean all researchers are to be relegated to the status of would-be thieves and that scholars in training are to be limited to only those items they can read and take notes on in the time they are seated in the archive, pencil and paper in hand? Surely not. Surely there is some middle ground. I for one hope that every institution I visit in the journey toward my dissertation is one that does all it can to promote the best use of its materials by supporting the needs of its scholar visitors.