Research Methodologies in the Archives: A Book History Nerd Appreciation Post

This semester, I have had the wonderful experience of taking a course titled “Research Methodologies in the Archives,” a cross-listed class in the History department and Archival Studies concentration. Taught by Prof. Daniel Lewis, who is the Chief Curator of Manuscripts and Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library, the class focuses on the ways research has been and can be conducted with archival material, paying close attention to archival management topics as well as the role that research libraries and museums play in promoting and expanding research. We’ve covered a slew of topics ranging from book history (yesterday, we looked at watermarks and seals and how they can be helpful in tracking, dating, and constructing material history of manuscripts and books), archival management issues (such as MPLP, copyright issues in the archives, and archivist code of ethics), curatorial considerations and processes, and, of course, how archives can and have been instrumental in fueling research—most of which occurred in conversations with working curators, artists, researchers, and archivists who visited the class as guest speakers.

The class began for me with a question as simple as the course name suggests: “how do you conduct research in the archives?” I had some idea—I did a bibliographic study of the first two issues of a short-lived Modernist little magazine The Owl by Robert Graves last year, as well as theT English Review published by Ford Madox Ford—but I wasn’t entirely sure if I was working efficiently or effectively given the unique nature of archival and special collections research.

Learning briefly about the Huntington Library’s vast collections and the trove of manuscripts and other archival materials turned my ear to the specific ways we talk about materials and objects as foci of research. Throughout the semester, the issue of materiality—the physical, tactical, olfactory, and auditory features—of objects keep coming up. After taking a couple of courses that incorporated book history and bibliographic studies, this course continues to encourage my curiosity and fascination with books and how we interact with objects, particularly books: the way we fetishize/appreciate/exhibit them in form of bookshelf displays or their ornate designs (especially illuminated manuscripts! beautiful), the social meaning we infuse not only in manuscripts, but in codices, and the historical context we can glean from them. Why does the book form continue to persist, even with the ease of digitization and digital technology? What can we learn (and what have we continued to learn) by studying the materiality of texts?



Plant Book by Hieronymous Bock (1552?)




Lightbulbs through the years display in the Beautiful Sciences exhibit at the Huntington Library.


To begin answering this question, the class did a few hands-on exercises with item-level descriptions, Prown’s method of describing objects (led by Carlene Stephens, senior curator at the Smithsonian Institution), and watermarks in manuscripts and incunabula. Next week, we’re discussing conservation processes, plus a trip to the Huntington’s conservation lab (insert gleeful “whee!” here).

Our weekly Saturday meetings (yes, Saturday classes!) continue to grow my interest in the history of the book as a field of study and research. Although my interests in museum studies and archival management are still nebulous, they intersect nicely with my interest in material culture and theory that, until recently, I have not fully pursued. The more that I engage with the topics of book history, printmaking, and bibliography, the more I find myself intrigued by the technical and philosophical questions about print technology and our relationship to it, both then and now.

As a scholar-in-training, this course is also helping me write and conduct research more efficiently. Prof. Lewis introduced practical strategies for composing research papers such as the Document Map feature in MS Word. This feature creates headings and sub-headings in a document, which is conducive to generating working outlines for research paper topics. And since the students in the course come from different degree programs and departments, Prof. Lewis has generally encouraged us to write our papers on our specific fields or sub-topics, which has allowed me to continue working on a digital humanities project I started last semester on George Gissing’s The Nether World and geographies of poverty (more on that later!).

As a class, we’ve also discussed academic writing strategies, not just as a mechanical process, but also as an intellectual undertaking. Vanessa Wilkie’s visit to our class, a recent History Ph.D. graduate from UC Riverside and also the William A. Moffett Curator of Medieval and British Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, was incredibly helpful in giving me and my fellow Ph.D. students some important insight into the dissertation process and job market preparation. Her advice about revisiting her sources to remind herself of her engagement with the field was especially helpful. As graduate students, it is sometimes easy to get lost in the massive literature about any given topic, and it’s helpful to take a long view of the field and remind ourselves that we are producing scholarship in conversation with others. We are always responding, questioning, and “speaking” to others in our writing and in our research. Although I have been in graduate school since 2011, I am still amazed by the wealth of information about writing effectively and other strategies out there that I can learn to help me embark on the dissertation process. Her visit was also very informative about alt-ac careers for recent Ph.D. graduates.

With two class meetings left in the semester, I still feel like I have only scratched the surface of an entirely different world of research. This class bridges my scholarly interests in book history, literature, and museum studies, and I feel like this is only the beginning of a fascinating trip down the rabbit hole of research and scholarship in the archives.


What is a Book? Notes from the Symposium on 4/17

This is a reblog of a post written in collaboration with my classmates and Prof. Marissa Nicosia at Scripps College in our class ENGL 197: What is a Book?

marginal notes

This post was written in collaboration with the students in my course, ENGL 197: What is a Book? 

IMG_3035This course began with a desire to think about the place of the book in humanist inquiry. When we study literature we read books, but we do not always pause to consider what they are or why they are the way they are. What is a book anyway? A dense wood-pulp rectangle? A performance? A scrolling screen? This semester we have asked these questions of an array of materials in special collections at the Denison and Honnold-Mudd libraries, and at the Scripps College Press. We considered the roles of authors, publishers, readers, annotators, illustrators, book artists, and booksellers. We pursued detailed research about three case studies: the multiple texts of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the media explosion that accompanied the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and the perpetually revised editions of…

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5 Writing Habits I Can’t Wait to Get Rid Of


At the end and beginning of every semester, I like to think about what I could have done better in terms of my writing habits, studying schedule, and just LIVING as a graduate student in general. When I finished my first semester in my PhD program last December, I took note of my writing habits and decided that the following need to be jettisoned ASAP.

  1. Hunching and/or tense shoulders: I noticed this when I started going to Barre classes that my shoulders are almost always raised or hunched over something. (No wonder backaches have been more bothersome last year.) In an effort to correct my posture and ease some of the strain, I bought myself a book stand so I can avoid the temptation to hunch over my books. Who knew grad school was so physically taxing? Bad posture isn’t sexy. On anyone.
  2. Writing alone: I started writing papers with a grad school buddy late last semester and I realize how refreshing it is to turn to someone and ask, “Hey, does this make sense?” and get immediate feedback. Writing can be solitary and there are times when you have to be alone with your writing (to do all the thinking, the self-doubting, weeping, screaming, etc.), but it shouldn’t always be so isolating. I’m hoping to do this more often.
  3. Comparing my progress to others: This one is less about writing habits but more of the mental and psychological space I inhabit when I’m writing. I’ve learned that I tend to stew on ideas for a while and that, comparatively, I’m not a fast writer (about 2-3 pages an hour, if I’m lucky). The one pitfall of writing with a buddy is that the “check-ins” you do with each other can be discouraging, especially if you feel like you’re stuck. The good thing is that, if your writing buddy is compassionate, he or she will give you some encouragement to keep going and work through the impasse.
  4. Rewarding myself with social media every 25 minutes: This one is difficult. I have Strict Workflow installed on my browser to block websites for 25 minutes at a time while I write. It’s supposed to encourage me to work steadily and focus on my writing for short bursts of time, followed by a 5-minute break. It has been quite successful, but I find that my “reward” isn’t to get up or stretch, it’s usually to see what’s the latest on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. This speaks more to my own social media habits than my writing, but the intersection of both, I realize, is quite unexplored and can be improved.
  5. Grunting: This feels like a new discovery, but I probably have been doing this for some time. I found that I grunt whenever I hit a wall–writer’s block or just out of steam–and it rarely leads me to a productive place. I tend to grunt when I write sentences I don’t quite find right, but for the sake of moving forward, I keep (after highlighting, underlining, and changing font colors so I don’t forget to return to them). Grunting has to go, especially because I like writing in public places like the Student Success Center on campus where the free coffee attracts many students and staff. The sooner I get rid of it, the sooner I look less like a grunting weirdo writer and more like a hardworking weirdo writer. Plus, I believe that if I think positively and spin my negative responses (like grunting) to my frustrations, I will actually be able to move past them and try to be productive.

How to have a productive summer


This is what trying to be productive in the summer can sometimes feel (see photo above). Sure, the semester is over and you’ve got a few books to read until school resumes in the fall, but that’s for later, right? Why work when there’s sunshine and beaches and picnics and trips and friends? If you’re anything like me, however, the guilt will sink in days (if not weeks!) after you’ve absconded with your sunscreen and summer playlists. The dread settles in and you are now officially behind with your work. What to do? From my experience, I found that planning, discipline, and, believe it or not, lots of breaks will help you stay sane and productive throughout the blissful summer days.

  1. Organize your time well. For me, this is a skill I’m always working on. It’s easy to get derailed by binge-watching Arrested Development episodes, hikes with friends, and dinners and lunches with pals you’ve lost contact with over a semester (or five…). I have learned to use my Google Calendar more effectively by creating different calendars: work, school, and social. It allows me to categorize and organize my time by helping me keep track of everything I am doing/would want to do/have planned to do. It also allows me to see if I’m doing a poor job of balancing my time between work and play. It can get especially maddening during the semester, but with a little patience and some practice over the summer (when things are less hectic), these calendars can be very helpful.
  2. Make yourself accountable (or get a friend to answer to). When I was an undergrad, I had a professor give me the following advice: Say what you do and do what you say. Doing so is an exercise in accountability. You’d hate to renege on something you said you would do, particularly if that someone is a professor, an employer/supervisor, or a colleague. I can be terrible at this, especially in the summer, so it’s helpful to stay connected with your network of friends and colleagues to keep you motivated. Join a writing group that meets regularly if you need to write something over the summer (or if there isn’t one, start one!). Communicate with your faculty adviser or mentor and let them know your progress so that a) they’re in the loop and b) you have someone to answer to. Sometimes all we need is a little push to not look like slackers to get us to do something.
  3. Take breaks (and lots of it). It’s hard to feel like you’re missing out on summer when you’re shut inside a room or the library reading, writing, researching, or whathaveyou. Work efficiently—set up a writing or reading time for an hour and a half, and when time is up, leave/go out/stand up/walk around/etc. for a good 10 to 15 minutes. Sit on a bench outside, take a quick walk in the park, have a snack. Whatever it is, take a break. Working through the summer will feel less painful if you stop for a few minutes, look around, and enjoy the moment.

*Photo of a greeting card I received from my best friend when I graduated from college.

The house of fi…

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; …

Henry James from “The Preface to the New York Edition” of The Portrait of a Lady (1908).

“Rats live on no evil star”

Photo by Francesca

I was reading casually through Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (New  York: Delacorte Press, 2012) edited by Dan Wakefield to take a break from some assigned reading and I found myself looking for Kurt Vonnegut’s letters to his daughter Nanny. His letters to her are funny, snarky at times, but always heartfelt. His letters carry this sense of conversation—like the recipient had just left speaking with him and he’s written a note to continue it with his own stories and thoughts. I think the best letters tend to have this quality. Here’s one from November 14, 1977.

November 14, 1977
[New York City]


Dearest of all possible Nans—

Two superb presents and a funny-sad letter from you—on my fifty-fifth birthday. Much obliged. A couple of other family birthdays this month: Allie’s is on the 18th, Father’s on the 23rd. I miss them. Father was a failed artist, but not an envious one. The beautiful work you and Edie are doing now would have given him exactly as much joy as doing it himself. Anybody’s doing good things in the arts made him bubble and croon.

I was looking through the published Letters of Anne Sexton, a Boston poet, a friend of mine who knocked herself off a couple of years ago. In one of the letters she tells of a palindrome she saw written on the side of a barn in Ireland. A palindrome, as you probably know, is a sentence that reads the same backwards as forwards—like “Madam, I’m Adam,” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Here’s the one Anne saw, and it’s the best one I ever heard: “Rats live on no evil star.”

As always—love—


From Dan Wakefield, ed., Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (New York: Delacorte Press, 2012), p. 256. Copyright 2012 by The Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Trust