Riley Linebaugh is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. Follow her @rileysline.
Archival research can be intense. There is plenty of writing out there, both angsty and artful, that expresses this as a commonly held truth among researchers. The stressful processes surrounding the archive -- among them: learning how to navigate catalog systems that accord with your own common sense, waiting hours for materials to be retrieved, scouring hundreds of pages for the mention of one very specific person or thing of unknown significance -- are enough to justify collapsing on your Airbnb bed and impulse-buying The Sims 4 in order to empty your head of archival woes (highly recommended).
Beyond the procedural hassles that often characterize work in archives, the effect of the materials can be even more difficult to bear. I spent March of last year reading through the meeting minutes of a group of amateur British soldiers, brainstorming how to best “eliminate” various populations in eastern Africa. Rich material, yes. Infuriating and overwhelming, also yes. Many days, I left the reading room feeling sad and deflated. I don’t want to ignore these emotions -- they’re powerful tools indicating the human stakes of historical research -- but I didn’t want to sit with them alone.
I’ve made good use of the online advice regarding self-care. Before going to a new archive, I googled as much as possible so that I at least feel prepared. I’ve put into practice the wisdom of fellow GradHackers in order to make my work more efficient. But the best tonic I’ve found to deal with archival stress is off-line, and I write now to spread the word: make friends at the archive.
Hear me out. The silence of the search room is necessary for research, I agree, but it deserves to be broken. Break it with the archivists, fellow researchers, the security employees. Break it not only in order to improve the quality of your research experience or for networking purposes (no shade) -- but because these people are likely as nerdy as you are and let’s be honest, that is precious. Early into my first long-term research stay, I sat next to a woman in the cafeteria and realized she was carrying a tote bag of a familiar university. I said as much, and fast-forward six hours, we’re sipping lager by London Bridge talking about colonial narrative styles.
My graduate center celebrates interdisciplinarity and invites young scholars from across a huge spectrum of academic interest. This bodes well for our trivia team potential but at times leaves me longing for company closer to my topic. Conferences and workshops can be whirlwinds leaving little time to deep dive into relationship building. Archival stays, on the other hand, are often longer and provide slightly more free time after opening hours. This past summer, I had a two-month residency in Nairobi, using the National Archives, and I befriended several other researchers and archivists. One took me cycling through a zebra-packed park, another to an artist collective block party, and many sat with me and talked through ideas big and small inspired by the archive.
Grad school, perhaps not unlike adulthood generally, can be lonely. What’s more, depending on your funding situation or research stage, you might feel more competitive than cozy with your peers. But I think there’s good reason to think about friendship as scholars. I have been uplifted, supported and sent into giggle fits by my historian friends. They make me a better scholar, but more importantly they make me a happier person.
This summer, I participated in the International Cultural History Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, and was overwhelmed by the offering of hundreds of sessions. There was one that blew me away. The organizer began by saying, “We planned this panel as three friends who wanted to open up our conversations to you.” They proceeded to present their papers, which eloquently and provocatively related to one another. They spoke with humor, kindness and comfort -- what’s more, they listened to one another attentively and with understanding. They related first as friends and secondly as scholars, and consequently they expressed their ideas with care and kept my attention throughout. They made the work feel a lot more like play.
How has friendship formed a part of your life as a young scholar?