Archival work is tough. On scholars as people I mean. I’m a fellow at the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin this month, doing some research on Dinah Mulock Craik. Texas is great so far—the people really are that friendly, Austin really is that weird, and the outdoors really is that hot! And, even though Craik was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Texas may be one of the most appropriate places in the world for the diaries of an author whose bestseller, John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) is the original rags-to-riches story of the self-made man.

I’d like to think about the personal aspect of working in an archive. Not only what happens when you get obsessed with finding something, but what happens when the archives close. It takes so much energy to be in a new place—figuring out the buses, finding the grocery store and the laundry mat—and you don’t really want to waste time figuring it out because you want to be in the library from day one! Not to mention by the time you get out of the library you haven’t spoken to anyone all day except to ask for your manuscripts. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep myself clean and fed while I research. I tend to resort to eating too many prepackaged Indian meals, shamelessly asking facebook friends that I’ve met at conferences to have coffee with me, and calling old friends who are busy with their regular lives for long evening chats. This month, in a fit of optimism, I joined the gym. Oh, and I read contemporary fiction—because when you’re in the archive all day, you get a free pass to read something non-Victorian at night. And neo-Victorian fiction and academic romances, totally count as catching up on your contemporary fiction, right? A. S. Byatt also helps with romanticizing the life of a young scholar while one lugs one’s groceries home on the bus.

I’ve been thinking—this is why they put first-year university students in dorms and on meal-plans: you’re fed, you’re on-campus, you can focus on your work and socializing is easy. Not that I want to be in a dorm, but if anyone has any tips on the personal aspect of research trips, I’d like to hear them. What do you do when the archives close?

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4 thoughts on “Archive Fever, Part I

  1. One of my tips when in a new city — for conferences or archival work or other trips where I don’t have a kitchen & don’t want to eat in restaurants the whole time — is to seek out the nearest Whole Foods or equivalent. And you’re in luck in Austin– its the home of Whole Foods. I find I can pick up healthy prepared meals and lots of snacks to fuel the library work. I also find that those evenings when you’re a little too tired to go out and explore the city are perfect for catching up on movies you’ve been meaning to see (whether in the theatre or on DVD).

  2. I applaud your inclination to go to the gym. I always find that getting enough exercise keeps me from feeling wiped out after ten hours in the archive.

    I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with tracking down conference friends for a shameless coffee or two. It’s important to talk to someone outside of the archive – and I’m sure you’d be happy to relieve your conference friends with a chat and a cup of coffee if they were visiting the archive in your town.

    Good luck!

  3. You are right Jen–the Whole Foods here is amazing. I’ve had Whole Foods dinner about three times already! I’m going to go with that there’s nothing shameful in that if it’s fuelling good research. And I do like it when people unexpectedly ask me for coffee!

  4. Hi,

    Hope you can help me. I’m trying to find out more about the ‘Miss Dickens’ with whom Dinah Craik corresponded, but I’m struggling to locate the Dinah Craik papers in the Harry Ransom Center Collections website. I’d be incredibly grateful for any help you could give.

    Thanks so much,

    Sophie

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