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.


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.

On Grad School


When I started my master’s program in fall 2011, I wanted to work hard and write well. I devoted my first year to doing just that. I read as much as I can, thought well and hard about my critical essays, and gave my brain the workout of its life (while trying to juggle 2 part-time jobs). And it nearly drove me insane.

By the end of my first year, I was beset with doubts, fatigue, and reader remorse (the feeling you get when you know you would love what you are reading had circumstances been different). In retrospect, it’s easy to find the culprit for this: I was out of balance. I was working hard and nothing else. I was on a harsh graduate school motto of “All work and no play makes Francesca a successful graduate student.” Clearly, “success” meant being nearly driven to pull my hair out. I felt like I was drowning in reading. I was working hard, but not smart. (This made it hard to even recall what I did last summer and if I did, in fact, enjoy it. I probably did not enjoy it as much as I could have.)

After two semesters of insomnia-inducing terror of failure (I wanted to see if it was just the adjustment to grad school or not), I’ve decided to start over—in both my philosophy and outlook—to achieve (better) balance. It’s not perfect, but I’m making progress.

For my second year of graduate school (it’s taking me three to finish–that’s a related entry on time-management and going at your own pace), I wanted to bridge the gap between “joy” and “work.”* I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but difficult to apply. It is in this liminal space that I try to do my work. This means working effectively (read: no distractions) to make sure that I read, synthesize, and critically think about my work. It doesn’t always happen all at once—it’s a recursive process (much like writing) that takes revisiting, rereading, and rethinking.

This also means that I stop to enjoy what I’m doing. If you’re anything like me (most Capricorns and results-oriented folks), I see things in terms of process, puzzles, and goals to reach. There’s not much space or time for enjoyment—and if there is enjoyment, it’s somewhere along the way, a minute (if not fleeting) moment.

And so I added another reminder (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who said the best things about most things):

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

I try to remind myself my reason for going back to school and for choosing a school that is rigorous and challenging: I love literature and I love to learn it. Sometimes it takes time to reflect to realize this. Other times, it takes a simple change of scene from studying in a library to an outdoor patio. Sometimes it comes from talking to friends or just sitting around with a book on literary censorship in Caroline England and finding yourself enthralled. (That one is harder for some people.)

But it does happen and I try to take notice. And I’m sure that these methods and routines will change along the way. I am, after all, going for a PhD in a few years and will definitely need to rethink some of these habits and outlook. For now, I want to live in that “middle-space” and hopefully, this will give me a more meaningful, instructive (academically and otherwise), and enjoyable journey through academia. The bridge between “work” and “joy” is one worth building. For my sanity’s sake.**


*I remembered this idea from an interview of Stephen Colbert in Rolling Stone. I’m sure other “literary” people have said similarly illuminating and wise advice, but hey, it’s Colbert that did it for me. I know. The man is a genius.

**I switched one part-time job for a less hectic one. It made a world of difference.