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March 07, 2013

Trawling through the archives

Great news today - I've been awarded an AHRC Research Training Support Grant to visit American film archives in Los Angeles and New York this summer. I was lucky enough to briefly visit film archives in both cities whilst researching for my Masters dissertation back in 2008 (before the financial meltdown - which I had to self finance and squeeze into a holiday!). This grant enables me to spend more concentrated time trawling through the fantastic primary source materials available at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Margaret Herrick Library (Academy of Motion Pictures official library), Museum of Modern Art New York and the New York Performing Arts Library. I may even get time to squeeze in a couple of other archive visits too.

I've now got some serious planning to do to work out my timetable and juggle my professional workload to make sure that my company clients don't suffer (though I'm lucky that my brother/business partner can cover my absence) and I make the most of my time in the archives. I know from my previous experience that detailed planning is essential and particularly as each archive has different rules, regulations and opening hours. The more research I can do here in the UK before I go the better, to check out exactly what is available, what I can gain access to and keeping in contact with the specialist archivists and librarians in the build up to my trip.

As I'm looking at films in the 1940s and 1950s, there is a wealth of material in the official archives of studios, producers, directors, writers and stars held in some fantastic archives and libraries. In comparison to today, so much communication was completed on paper in those days, and in multiple copies, from memos and letters, to scripts and contracts, press books and reviews, to production notes and financial details, the list goes on, in addition to photos, audio recordings, video footage and so much more. The insight that can be gained from having the time to wade through boxes of often unmarked materials and to start to build connections, almost like a jigsaw puzzle, will be invaluable to my research.

Having attended a seminar about visiting film archives, particularly abroad, last term organised by a Research Fellow in film at the Institute of Advanced Study, I picked up some great top tips for do's and don'ts. There is always a danger of misreading or wrongly analysing something in haste and then following a journey that leads to a dead end wasting time, energy and valuable limited resources. One of the challenges of visiting archives is that it can be difficult to correctly and appropriately reference material, especially when looking at loose papers in unmarked brown paper files, stored in boxes - consistency is crucial as well as collecting all relevant reference material - because you can't easily check when you get home! So as with my PhD generally, I'll need to have very clear aims and objectives and allow some flexibility to explore new routes opened up by discovery, but make sure that enthusiasm doesn't overtake reason.

I've spent 20 years working in the arts and struggling with clients to source funds to deliver arts, heritage and cultural tourism activity, especially in the current climate, often by extensive lobbying but mostly by having to fill out complicated and lengthy application forms with onerous evaluation requirements. So I am hugely grateful to Warwick and AHRC for a straightforward process and procedure, even though the timelines for submission were a little tight!

So if any of you out there have visited American archives, then I'd love to hear about your experiences and any advice to make the most of my trip.


October 30, 2012

My relationship with the dead

I have been absent from the blog recently. I’m sorry. It’s…inexcusable. I won’t do it again, I promise.

Anyway, I have been thinking recently about a group of people who are nothing less than crucial for my research, but whom I very rarely consider – my research subjects. For the most part, this is a bunch of dead people, although I do very occasionally come across a reference to a person whom I’ve met (at which point I often have to fight the urge to ask them why they’re not dead yet). Despite their lack of breathing, moving, fighting life, they’re certainly adding some pretty crucial life-force to my research, bless ‘em. Sometimes I just feel like a conduit (woah, fancy word alert!) for some people who once led somewhat more exciting, more important lives than me, and sometimes I feel privileged to give them a voice, to pick their ideas and anecdotes out of the ether and present them to the world. However, it is admittedly true that I very rarely look at my work and think, “Hmm…I wonder what my research subjects would make of all this? Is this chapter really doing them justice?”

What has brought on this sudden cri de coeur (ooh lala, French words alert!), I hear you ask? Well, something odd happened to me last week. I was sat in the archive (seriously, some of the best days of my life have been in that small reading room), and I came across an article by a social worker talking about her difficulties in helping an abandoned child. She talks about feeling ‘paralysed’ in her work, about realising that there was nothing more to be done, and, perhaps most importantly, that it was somehow simultaneously nothing to do with her, and also all her fault. She was just one women trying, and occasionally failing, to do her job.

I slumped back in my seat, and started into empty space (there’s a lot of empty space in that reading room). I knew, I just knew, that I could never do justice to this social worker’s experience. Yes, I could contextualise it, I could argue about why and how it happened, I could add it to the qualitative and quantitative data I had already amassed about a vast number of people alive in twentieth-century Britain. But I could not reply to this specific woman, I could not tell her that her plea had been heard, that someone in another century was moved by her words. She was to my PhD just a faceless character in an on-going story, but to me she was, for just thirty seconds on a grey Thursday morning, a companion on a seemingly never-ending journey. I could only guess at what she might have been through just so I could copy her words down and deploy them in supervisions, conference papers, casual banter over a pint. As melodramatic as it sounds, I felt like she might deserve a better researcher than me. But I’m all she’s got to pass on the message that, once upon a time, she tried to change a life for the better, and later felt disgusted by her eventual failure.

Wow. This all started out rather humorous, and then got pretty deep. You can see why I have been away. This type of experience is obviously not uncommon in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We all have research subjects, and we all want to get at something nuanced, important, something worth telling to the world. Whether we can or not is a question we ask ourselves from time to time. As for the scientists, well, I don’t know. I wonder whether the researchers at CERN were spurred on by a desire to do justice to the Higgs boson, to allow it to tell its story of giving mass to generally ungrateful particles. Perhaps Newton just wanted to speak for falling apples everywhere and across time. Of course, all this goes a step deeper still, to the human stories behind the research.

I think I’ll stop here. Tuesdays should be for laughter, not self-reflexive soul-searching. Me, I’m heading back to the archive. There are some people I need to spend some time with. They don’t hear me, but I can’t stop listening to them.

August 01, 2012

The dizzying highs and sickening lows of the research trip – by Tom

Now, it may be a reflection of my status as a PhD spring chicken (N.B. not a real status, or, come to that, a real chicken), but I still get really rather excited about research trips. And I don’t mean, ‘Ooh, I think I’ll have another slice of toast’ excited, I mean the ‘Oh my God I can’t sleep!’ kind of excited. I just lay there for hours quietly whispering to myself, ‘I’m going to London tomorrow, to look at some documents, and some of them are QUITE OLD!’. Eventually my housemate comes in and calmly, possibly even politely, asks me to cease and desist, but I can’t help it: I just cannot shake that Research-Trip-Eve feeling. It’s a bit like I’m six again, except this time the presents are not under a tree but in a locked room, and wrapped not in festive paper but in manila folders.

This feeling cannot last. I mean, the documents I am off to see aren’t magic beans, and they certainly are not going to write my thesis for me. They are just pieces of paper.

It all starts off quite well. I sit on the train, giggling to myself. I successfully make it from station to library, and I walk through the barriers with an uncharacteristically suave flick of my reader’s card. The documents I had planned on studying are all there, and even the awkward manner of the archivist cannot hold me back. I take a seat with studied ease, and begin to leaf through the papers.

Two hours later, I have my head in my hands. I had been expecting great gushes of inspiration and insight, a plethora of nifty little tit-bits, maybe a humorous quote to kick off a conference paper or preface a chapter. I had been expecting, in essence, to find exactly what I had been hoping to find. But these documents, well, they’re just mundane reflections of the mundane lives of some people who were doing mundane jobs fifty years ago. I try and exercise the critical faculties that have got me this far…but no. I am up a creek of dust and dullness, and my only paddle is an outdated laptop.

I need a miracle. I need a revelation. I need a coffee. Only one of these things is on sale for £1.50 in the café downstairs.

This is a situation very particular to historians, but I know for a fact that its equivalent exists in every discipline. Every PhD student has results which they would like to find, and every PhD student will at some point be disappointed. My personal disappointment takes the form of a piece of paper, but if you’ve ever found that p=0.99, or that you are nowhere near five sigma, or that not a single one of your interviewees even hints at their employment of trans-gender narratives of embodiment whilst out grocery-shopping, then you will know what I mean.

One very long coffee break later, I return to my discreet pile of folders. It has since dawned on me that I have five hours until my train leaves, and I am wondering how I am going to kill five hours in London. Ignoring the documents which ruined my morning, I wearily open up another box. I sigh deeply, and the archivist looks at me as if I am going to cry. ‘Jeez’, I think, ‘even the awkward archivist is pitying me.’

But then something magical happens. A stray sentence reminds me of an idea, now long forgotten, I had a few months ago. Could it be? Was I … onto something?

The next two hours passes in a blur. I devour the next few folders, and wash them down with some personal correspondence. My veins fill with caffeine, my brain fills with ideas. None of the stuff written in these files is what I was expecting…but that’s quite exciting now. I half want to grab the elderly gentleman next to me, and whisper breathlessly, ‘Look! Look at that! That shouldn’t be there! It defies everything I’ve ever read on the subject! Isn’t it strangely tantalising?’, but then I reason that this might cause the poor man to kneel over and fill out his last ever document supply slip. So I keep it to myself. It feels a little bit, just a little bit, like Christmas.

If there’s a moral to all this, I am not entirely sure what it is. It seems a little like all I write about in this blog is how the PhD experience can smash you down right before lifting you up, and you just have to take on the rollercoaster on your own terms. This is a little bit like that again, I guess.

In the end, the truth is out there. It may not be the truth you expect or want, or even a truth you understand. But it’s nevertheless something that you found, and it’s yours to use as you wish. So, if you can’t sleep before your next research trip, don’t blame me. It’s not my fault you’re about to make a discovery that will revolutionise your whole project.

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