(Un)Catalogued: Adventures in Historical Research

Every archive is different, has its own set of rules. But by the time you sit down at a table in any special collections reading room you have likely filled out your paperwork and presented your ID. You have explained the topic of your research to an archivist, and described what documents you are interested in examining. You have stashed most of your belongings in a locker and carried only a laptop (absolutely no pens allowed!) into the room.

Megan Kate Nelson

Historian Megan Kate Nelson is researching a book about the Civil War and the American Southwest, and writing the (Un)Catalogued Column for JSTOR Daily along the way.

Once you sit down, you search for an outlet that works. You sift through a container of tiny pencils to find the one that is sharpest. This can take a while. You fill out the call slip (paper or electronic) and hand it to the archivist. Then you wait.

It is this ritual and its attendant pleasures—the sense of anticipation that grows in the time between the submission of the call slip and the delivery of materials, the serendipitous discoveries you make once you start reading through the documents—that keeps me coming back to the archive.

As I sit down, I am also aware of the networks of power and authority that constitute “the archive.” Just as each library has its own rules, it has its own history of collecting and its own assertion of different ways of “knowing.” Regional, state, and city libraries make claims to the specific histories of their locations; documents come to them from dusty attics and long-forgotten trunks of memorabilia. I also become aware of inter-library rivalries; larger, wealthier libraries and research centers can outbid smaller archives for documents; the dispersal of such sources across the nation sometimes makes multiple research trips necessary. The idiosyncrasies of different archives—their unique assertions of authority—are part of the process of historical research.

Some libraries have digitized some of their records; the availability and search-ability of such online collections have revolutionized historical research. You do not need travel funding or vast cash reserves to have access to millions of documents; you can assign students to do primary document research even if your home library does not have any special collections. And doing research in digital collections can produce its own pleasures: the satisfaction of finding the perfect search term, the ability to read and take notes on primary documents in the twenty minutes between classes or right before dinner. But these experiences are not unmediated; there are structures of power here too. Who selected (and continues to select) the texts to be digitized? How much of a collection is actually available?

In (Un)Catalogued, a regular column for JSTOR Daily, I will be considering all of these kinds of questions of archival collecting, digitization, and research as I start to research and write a book about the American Civil War in the Southwest. I will write about sources and collections that I have discovered in both brick-and-mortar archives and digital collections, and will suggest how readers can use these sources in both research and teaching.

Not all of the materials I highlight will be focused on the nineteenth-century Southwest. As many historians know, you often find interesting and strange texts in the archives. And not all of the sources will be written manuscripts. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am interested in any kind of record—print, visual, material, and environmental—that illuminates the past in unique ways.

I hope you enjoy (Un)Catalogued. Feel free to write with any suggestions for future columns, or questions about the sources I have found. Let the adventures begin!


JSTOR Citations

Constructing 'The Geographical Archive'

By: Charles W. J. Withers

Area, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Sep., 2002), pp. 303-311

Wiley on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)

Digital Technologies and Pedagogies

By: Tracey M. Weis, Rina Benmayor, Cecilia O'Leary and Bret Eynon

Social Justice, Vol. 29, No. 4 (90), Pedagogies for Social Change (2002), pp. 153-167

Social Justice/Global Options

Envisioning the Archival Commons

By: Scott R. Anderson and Robert B. Allen

The American Archivist, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2009), pp. 383-400

Society of American Archivists

Megan Kate Nelson

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer, historian, and cultural critic. She has taught American history and American studies at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard University, and Brown University. She writes for the New York Times Disunion blog and Civil War Times in addition to JSTOR Daily, and is the author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Georgia, 2012) and Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia, 2005). Her blog, Historista, examines the surprising, cool, and weird ways that people engage with history in everyday life.

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