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.


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