Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Researching in Boston: Day 1

Serious research day one in Boston completed. Unfortunately, I don't have much to show for it. Ended up learning more about the organization of records, navigating through the records and issues that can arise with records, both while in a collection and once an author uses them.

Not much gained for useful content.

I want to brush aside a couple things that people following on Google Buzz and Facebook over the last couple days have read about my thoughts. I went to the Boston Public Library (BPL) for day one. Based on their Website, compared to the Massachusetts Historical Society, it sounded the most intimidating and least likely to let me look at and view the records.

First thing the BPL Website says about the special collections room is that they will allow generally mature and careful people into the reading room to use the materials. Then they will address people wanting to get in on a case-by-case basis and allow you access based on the merits of what you want to use the materials for. Sounds good so far.

An example of someone they wouldn't allow in to use the materials is a student learning research techniques. I feared that might be me since I'm working on a bachelors project. I hope to get it published some day. The basic idea of an education at my college is, along with having a satisfactory piece of work, to teach me how to think, how to plan out a project and how to research. To intimidate me even more, the Website mentions that the BPL may require a letter of introduction from someone at a University.

Possibly the most intimidating part about the reality of visiting the special collection reading room was the paper work that had to be filled out, forms submitted when entering and leaving the room and having to be buzzed in and out of the room, kind of prisoner-like. It was annoying rather than really intimidating, though, and on some level, necessary for the preservation of historical documents that represent our cultural and intellectual heritage.

All that intimidation was for nothing. I have the feeling that all the stuff on the Website might be to discourage non-researchers or non-serious researchers, possibly an attempt to cut down on frivolous weekend or busy time traffic or something.

The archivist in the reading room couldn't have been nicer or more friendly. She exuded exuberance about the organization of the card catalog, all the guests she has in the reading room and all the topics that people research. The orientation was short, useful and easy to understand.

We even got into an interesting discussion about the book where I got all the citations for the letters I wanted to look at. It's possible that the author of the book could've cited their sources incorrectly (I won't be naming the book or author at this point, in case it's more of an accusation than a fact). Apparently the documents cited by the author could be at the Massachusetts Historical Society or some other archive. It's also possible that a mold issue they had at the BPL at some point in the past could've destroyed the documents.

I got to take a look at a couple letters written by the wife of a main figure of my research. Nothing useful content-wise. Her letters mostly contained gossip and a relation of the events of a day or two, probably during a trip or a vacation.

Despite the frivolity of the letters, though, I still felt a little awe about handling this original document. The documents I requested from the archivist mostly came from the Brook Farm John S Dwight boxes. They consisted of two boxes with a bunch of folders.

The archivist allowed me to take two of the folders at a time to a table (another archivist a couple days later disclosed that if they handed out more than the two, the chance of causing disorganization increases by a lot). Opening the first folder, I saw that the letter was written something like 170 years ago.

I had a hard time believing that I had such an old document in front of me. For one thing, the paper was still white! At work, papers from work put in file for something 10 or 20 years are brittle and majorly discolored.

I probably had less articulate and more instinctual thoughts than what I’ve already mentioned. I simply dwelt on the fact of having something personal written by someone dead, and they wrote it a LONG time ago, right in front of me. I read about actual events that occurred. It was almost like a ghost had appeared in front of me to tell me the story.

My earlier experiences with historical documents didn't prepare me for getting my hands on this document. My grandmother has given me letters and other documents that her mother and father had written to each other. Those documents are probably only something like 80-90 years old or something, from around the first World War or so. They look about the same as this one letter from about 170 years ago.

Neither did my visit to the Wisconsin Historical Society prepare me for this haunting but cool experience. In Wisconsin, I handled specialized copies from original documents that were pasted in a book that reminded me of a scrapbook. It felt historical and technical, but not necessarily haunting.

Reading this letter worn with age, though, felt more real and authentic. The wear and tear had a lot to with it. I had the feeling of sacredness by all the security measures. Burying the reading room in the corner of the library had something to do with it. Coupling the worn original records and paperwork and the out-of-the-way reading room creates an essence. The grandness of the library certainly added to the feeling of sacred. For whatever reason, I felt special and privileged to look at this old, tattered letter.

Unfortunately, I only got two things from my journey to the BPL reading room that day. A lot of the letters I wanted to look at have already been collected in a book about 120 years ago. The card catalog in the reading room notified me of the author and title of the book, easy as that.

I found the book easily enough on Google Books that night. Maybe I didn't even need to drop into the library for documents. Maybe all the documents I need are in a book easy enough to get off the Internet that doesn't require payment expressly for the book, a long plane ride or a long wait for the package with a book in it.

I also got to make direct historic connection to a person from 170 years ago and felt a sense of awe. Maybe it had fairly pithy content on it that I don’t think has much, if any significance in the overall scheme of things. Nonetheless, after having familiarized myself with the path of the letter writer’s life and the lives of those written about during my research over the last couple years, I felt history and respect for the process of preserving our heritage, whether meaningful or not.

So, yeah, day one didn’t do much for me. At best, it reiterated the point that I’m doing a lot more work on this bachelor project than I need to do. Translating badly handwritten letters originally crafted with a quill pin takes A LOT OF WORK, a lot more than a bachelor should be doing. I resolved, that day, that no matter what information I gather or don’t gather during this trip, I will work hard when I get home to finish my project with whatever information I’ve got.

Maybe the reference to that book of letters will help, but even if I didn’t find it, I resolved to come home, finish my project and not bother to look for more information. I’ve pretty much got all I need. Additional handwritten primary resources will help make the project stronger, but I’ve got enough. This project will get finished, and it will get done soon. Take my word for it.

But, of course, I still had two days left in Boston. I wasn’t going to waste my time.

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