Over the past few years, autumn has meant archive time for me. Notwithstanding a soft spot for falling leaves, I can’t help but be drawn to yellowing records this time of year. The chance to take on new projects, visit new repositories, and work in new collections seems a harvest festival of sorts. By far the sappiest of my seasonal rites and research analogies comes from another fall tradition—that is, American football.
I used the “archive blitz” to help me move past one of the biggest challenges historians face. The reality of limited archive time forces researchers, especially less experienced researches like me, to broach questions with not necessarily intuitive answers. What material is required to help solve my research problem? How do I prioritize the essential material when there is so much interesting but nonessential material in this collection? When is enough really enough? More completed projects and more hours in the archive give seasoned historians confidence in approaching new collections on a time crunch, research skills sharpened through steady work over many years. In the throes of a semester though, I found an aggressive approach to these questions helped me move forward when I wanted to linger over every record, folder, and box.
My game plan scheduled an unrelenting number of archival trips into several chunks. The awareness of an appointment at another archive the next day motivated me to comb a collection for the essentials. Sometimes, I visited two different archives in the same day, eating lunch in transit. With a more structured and ambitious approach to archive time, I better prioritized what was most useful for my projects before, only if time allowed, looking for stories in unexpected places. Trying to move quickly helped me attack my research question with more focus. I stopped saving the best documents for last, wasting time optimistically poking around for evidence that was seldom there. I started pursuing the real leads with more relentlessness.
This fall, I bring up this approach to once again psych myself up for time in the archive. Despite the aggressive strategy last year, I found myself making additional trips to the archives. These extra visits happened because I came across more material than anticipated and because research questions evolved as the project progressed—both good things. Having said this, I attribute these positive developments to starting fast, and only later slowing down and really digging in. Whereas in past terms my projects had their respective archives relatively close together, this time around I’m working in archives with both great distances between each other and a real trek from where I live. Time to see if the archive blitz works as well on the road as it has at home.