Archival Research 2.0: The Home Edition

Aside from a couple of very minor archive stints while at West Point, I’m not in the archives this summer. This is a little strange, because I’ve spent time in archives every summer since 2007 (in addition to some fall, spring, and winter break trips). Although it’s nice to have a break, I realized that I miss the archives this summer.

But just because I’m not in the archives doesn’t mean I can’t visit them…virtually, that is. As a twenty-first-century tech-savvy historian, I’ve managed to bring pretty much everything I wanted from the archives home with me. All I have to do is plug in my external hard drive, fire up Zotero, and go to town.

…which is exactly what I’m doing. I realized in May that it wouldn’t hurt to go through all my research files again as I revise. I’ve got a pretty good organizational system in Zotero, and I’m pretty familiar with most of my research files at this point. Yet the fact of the matter is that I also have more than 3,000 distinct PDF files from nearly three years and more than a dozen archives.

This Primary Source Review 2.0 is a slow-going, occasionally tedious process. It involves opening the folder from each archival trip, then systematically opening and reviewing each PDF file from that trip. For the archives where I found fewer items, that’s not so bad. For my College Park materials, it can be a little overwhelming, given that there are 925 PDF files in that folder…and I created those very early in the dissertation process. (This means that I didn’t always choose the most effective process for creating PDF files, often creating large PDFs for the content of an archival folder, rather than splitting them into, say, 10 PDF documents.)

Although it’s a frustrating process at times, it’s also very, very good for me. It’s not that I haven’t spent time with my sources in the past two years. Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time with them. It’s that there are files in Zotero that tend to come up again and again, and there are files that simply don’t. In some cases, that’s because my tagging system evolved over the past two years.

One of the most helpful things about going through everything again now, towards the end of everything, is that my perspective is much different than it was two years ago when I had just begun. The reason I have so many College Park materials is because I took everything that seemed remotely relevant, “just in case.” (Mostly, this has turned out in my favor.) Yet, more than volume (which really means very little), what’s useful is being able to revisit things with a fresh eye. Things that seemed confusing two years ago now make more sense, and things that once seemed absolutely needless now might find a home when I revise Chapter 2 or Chapter 4.

So it’s turned into my summer treasure hunt. It’s amazing to discover what you forget you have – and I think there are plenty of priceless things in here that might just make the difference to take things to the next level.

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2 thoughts on “Archival Research 2.0: The Home Edition

  1. I can relate, I have thousands of photo files of documents that have yet to be used…. (gah). Never really figured out how to make ReadIrisPro read the pictures I took, so have to still transcribe sections and add tags myself.

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