The Challenges and Rewards of Multi-Site Archival Research
During a recent campus interview, a History PhD student asked me: “what is it about this profession that keeps you going? What is your ‘eternal flame’?” As this question was raised during the “brown bag” lunch with the department graduate students, and I did not want to come across as impolitic, I asked the student to clarify. He explained that there were certain aspects of this profession that struck him as unbearable, and he cited archival research as one of his personal bugaboos. I replied that the archival research was my “eternal flame,” so to speak, which keeps me going when faced with a mountain of undergraduate papers to grade, another exacting job application, or the tedium of bibliography construction.
During the course of my career as a graduate student, I visited nineteen archives and research libraries across five nations (Cuba, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, and the United States) under the auspices of multiple external and internal fellowships. As my exchange with the aforementioned graduate student illustrates, such wide-ranging and time-consuming research is not for everyone. However, the adventure of travel, the joys of interacting with people in different cultural zones, and the constant intellectual challenge of navigating through novel linguistic, cultural, and geographical landscapes are rewards unto themselves.
As the Atlantic World and Indian Ocean heuristic models grow in popularity, and the collective push to produce transnational histories does not promise to ebb in the near future, many of us are, or will be, faced with the challenge of multi-site archival research. It can be a complex and risky venture, but in this limited space, I will deconstruct the process into three basic phases: acquisition of funding, finding suitable living arrangements, and successfully researching in an archive at which you have limited time to accomplish your goals.
As these multi-site archival research projects can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, the obvious first step is to obtain funding. Even if you have the resources to fund your own travel, you should nonetheless apply for external sources of funding, as they will provide attractive lines for your C.V., and they also provide a source of structure. For instance, one major external fellowship I received required that I submit periodic reports on the progress of my research.
As far as applying for research money in the current hypercompetitive atmosphere, my strongest advice is to apply for everything and anything that seems remotely related to your dissertation topic. There are several large external grants that provide funding for a year’s worth of research abroad, such as the Fulbright-Hays, the Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, and the CLIR/Mellon. Shorter-term research grants are absolutely worth applying for—every little bit helps! Additionally, some research libraries in the United States, among them the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, house documents from around the world, and provide competitive fellowships to research in their collections.
Once you have acquired funding, the next challenge is to locate temporary, affordable housing in remote locations. In my various sojourns, I have used a number of different avenues to find housing. In Brazil, I used the services of an American expatriate rental agent who specializes in short-term housing for tourists. In Portugal, I rented an apartment from a fellow academic through sabbaticalhomes.com. In Spain, I rented individual rooms from local residents via AirBnb. If you have sufficient time and energy after archival research to socialize outside of academic circles and aren’t an especially private person, this can be a good option. For one thing, you will get much-needed practice in the local language. In the countries I visited, the local historians were almost always proficient in English, and wanted to practice their conversational skills with me. Second, local residents will often point out the location of inexpensive restaurants and grocery stores, and can tell you the most efficient means of navigating local public transportation systems. My hosts typically provided an abundance of local “insider information,” something that often proved to be a lifesaver while traveling on a shoestring budget!
A caveat should be mentioned at this point. If, in the course of your travels, you decide renting a room from a local resident is a good option for you, it is a good idea to conduct the transaction through a site such as AirBnb, where there is a third party to whom both host and guest are accountable in instances of dispute or misbehavior. In the course of my archival research, my local hosts were, for the most part, trustworthy, friendly, and polite. However, in a brief trip to Lisbon one summer, I rented a room from a “friend of a friend.” When this host displayed bizarre behaviors such as appearing at my bedroom door while nude, and going through my belongings while I was away at the archive, I found myself without much recourse. Using a third-party agent or website provides a safeguard against deviant behaviors on the part of a host, and leaves you with options should your living situation, for whatever reason, turn out to be unbearable.
Once you have located a safe place to stay (ideally within close reach of the archive(s)!), and have settled in, you now face the challenge of archival research. For the multi-site researcher, archival research can be especially problematic. As anyone who has engaged in archival research for any period of time understands, each individual archive and research library has its own organizational logic, and there will thus be a learning curve for each new place that you go. So, well before your trip, prepare yourself. Using online catalogs, published catalogs, and the footnotes of secondary works, design a detailed plan of action for your arrival at the archive. This is not only prudent, but it will also give on-site archivists a clear picture of what you are looking for, and they will often respond by proactively looking for documents on your behalf and/or introducing you to other historians in the archive who are working on similar themes. One of the best things you can do for yourself with regards to multi-site archival research is to talk to people. Well in advance of your trip, it is a good idea to contact archivists and historians at the local university. Having contacts in a foreign country and in an archive at which you have a limited time to locate documents can make the research process proceed much more smoothly. This advance networking can also ward off loneliness, another inherent hazard of multi-site archival research. I have established many enduring professional contacts and friendships that began with me sending an email asking for advice.
As dissertation topics with transnational themes are presently de rigeur, more and more young historians will find themselves overseeing a peripatetic research agenda. If one’s topic is especially broad (as is mine), the agenda can take more than a year, and will likely force you out of some of your comfort zones. In pursuing a transnational topic, the historian also becomes a de facto travel agent, diplomat, and linguist. While daunting at first, I soon found the process incredibly rewarding, and not only in terms of collecting primary evidence for my dissertation. I was also able to refine my spoken Spanish and Portuguese (and occasionally, French) skills, gained valuable cultural knowledge, and made many long-lasting friendships.
Joanna K. Elrick
Department of History
Image: Atlantic or Western Ocean, map by John Thomson, 1814. Hand colored. Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Geographicus Rare Antique Maps.
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