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John Garrison Marks is a guest author and doctoral candidate in history at Rice University. His research examines free people of color and racial identity in Spanish America and the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. You can find him on Twitter @johngmarks, and at his personal blog johngmarks.com.
I am at the tail end of a six-month research trip in Colombia. It has been an incredible, productive, and enlightening experience, and not only for my dissertation. I received some good advice from colleagues, advisors, and friends before beginning this research trip, but I have still learned a lot while here about what I think makes long-term research trips successful (and potentially unsuccessful). The following are my tips for making the most of your time in the archive.
1. Plan Ahead
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received about research trips, especially long-term ones, is to make a detailed plan before leaving. First and foremost, know where the archives you’ll be visiting are located and what its hours are. It seems simplistic, but nothing is more frustrating than being in a new place and not knowing where you need to be or when you need to be there. Speaking of which, figure out as well what the holiday schedule is like for an international trip. One of my biggest frustrations so far in Bogotá has been waking up ready for a big productive day in the archive, only to be thwarted by an unexpected national holiday.
Beyond this basic level planning, it’s important also to use whatever resources are available to come up with a research plan before you set foot in the archive. Using an archive’s finding aids, catalogs, as well as books and articles that cite research from your archives, you should be able to come up with a good idea of the collections and items you want to look at. Make a checklist if it helps. Going into the archive without a plan is a recipe for unproductive days, and even on a long research trip, being efficient is important. In addition, check to see if any of the materials you want to look at are available online or outside the archive. For instance, the Archivo General de la Nación here in Colombia, has digitized an impressive number of their colonial records, but nothing later. Because I know I will be able to go back to images of these documents even when I’m back in the U.S., I have focused the vast majority of my time on the archive’s material that isn’t otherwise accessible. Having a solid plan of what you need to do at the archive before you get there will allow you to minimize the number of days you sit in the archive wondering “What the hell am I doing?” (although it certainly won’t eliminate them). While having a plan is important…
2. Be Flexible
No matter how well you plan, a wrench will get thrown in somewhere on a trip of any significant length. Collections will be unavailable for any number of bizarre reasons. You’ll get to the archive and find out items that are listed in finding aids have in reality been lost for years. Citations you’ve gleaned from secondary sources for a closer look will turn out to be incorrect. This will undoubtedly happen with the source you are sure was going to be the most important one for your entire project. The key is to not let these hiccups derail your whole trip. If something is only temporarily unavailable, you can work on something else until it becomes available, since you planned so well in the beginning. For more difficult issues, speak with the archivists, be creative with how you can look at the sources that are available, and take a step back to think about your project more broadly. These strategies have all helped me prevent bumps in the road from becoming major crises.
3. Stay Organized
Often, long research trips are long because they are in faraway places, so staying organized is key (see Alex's post on productivity systems for tips on getting organized). A poor transcription or forgetting to properly write down a citation could be a real pain when you’re back home. For me, coming back to Colombia while in grad school will likely be unfeasible—in terms of both time and money. When I can take photos of original documents, I always start with the request slip, the box, and any other identifying markers before moving to the document itself. When I can’t, I make sure my transcriptions all begin with the complete citation and a description of the item. On a long research trip, you’re likely to end up with a LOT of photos and transcriptions, so I started using a DEVONthink database for keeping all of my research organized by archive, section, and collection; my filenames always have years, item numbers, and short descriptions. The last thing I want is to not be able to use a juicy quote or smoking gun in my dissertation because I forgot to write down which folder it came from.
4. Take A Break
It’s okay to take breaks. They have helped me immensely. One of the major advantages of a research trip of multiple months is that you have time to process the information you’re taking in. Obviously you have to make the most of the time you have in any given location, but taking a day to read some relevant secondary literature, look over the material you’ve gathered so far, or just giving your brain a rest have all helped me be more efficient and productive when I returned to the archive. Also, about four months into my trip, I started to take a bit of extra time to begin writing. There are competing views to writing while researching, but it allowed me to start getting a clearer picture of what I had, how I would use it, and what kinds of things I still needed to find. Even though we often feel compelled to spend every waking minute in the archive, that often leads to burnout not to increased productivity. On a trip that lasts multiple months, it’s okay to take a day off from the archive now and again.
These are just some of the things I’ve found helpful during my 5+ months abroad researching. What tips do you have for making the most of a long-term research trip?
[Image by Flickr user Bobotmedia and used under creative commons licensing.]