My Smash + Grab Research Trip to New Orleans

Last week I had the pleasure, for the first time in months, of spending a day in the archives. With the financial support of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, I was able to travel to New Orleans and conduct research Tulane’s Louisiana Research Collection.

I prepared for my visit using the DEVONthink for Historians Smash and Grab Checklist, a template that Ada and I designed and included in Super User guide (we also have a Low and Slow Checklist for longer-term archival visits). We created these checklists because our philosophy is that database maintenance is as important as database mining. It’s like a car—you can’t drive it if you don’t change the oil regularly.

The Day Before

I began by creating a new folder for the Tulane Louisiana Research Collection. Withinn that folder I created a new Smash and Grab Checklist (by clicking Actions > New from Template) and reviewed the three tasks listed under “Before the Archive.”

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Per step one, I created a new plain text file within the same folder and labeled it “Archival Notes LaRC Tulane September 27 2018.” I added contact information for the archivists I had corresponded with, the address of the archive, and then listed the collections, boxes, and folders I planned to view during my visit. And then I headed for the airport!

The Day Of

I woke up early so I would have time to double-check that my database, scanner app, and walking directions to the archive were set and that I was ready to go.

I arrived at the archive a few minutes after it opened, delayed by a deluge of rain that slowed my pace. By the time I reached Tulane I was soaked! But between 10:30 AM and 3 PM, I diligently combed through boxes and folders.

As instructed in the “In the Archive” section of the checklist, I kept a dutiful record of the materials I viewed. In my archival notes, I wrote down the contents of each folder (in the aggregate, unless particular documents were of interest) and indicated if I had scanned a particular document.

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I used the CamScanner app to create PDFs of each document. I like CamScanner because it has a batch feature that allows you to capture a multi-page document in one PDF (other apps might do this as well, but this was the first one I found). From the app, I transfered the PDFs to my laptop via email. This could also be done with a cloud storage service.

Before I left, I downloaded and opened each file to check that the PDF was readable and complete. When you can’t necessarily get back to an archive, it’s essential to do the job right the first time. It’s hard when you’re mentally drained and your eyes are itchy and tired and all you want is to go eat a big lunch and nurse a beer. But I forced myself to do it!

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After the Archive

My first post-archive task, per the checklist, was to transfer all of the PDFs into the database and move them into their appropriate folders. I ended up only scanning 10 documents, and so I had time to do this before the archive closed. With so few documents, I decided that box and folder sub-folders were not necessary and I simply stored the documents by collection.

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After a few days of enjoying the Big Easy, I sat down to finish the checklist. I added tags to each document, which varied; I did tag all with the year they were written and “New Orleans” so that I could easily aggregate all my documents from the Crescent City regardless of which archive they I found them in. Once the document was tagged I created a SuperAnnotation and filled in the citation information. The final step was to label both the document and SuperAnnotation with the red dot, which I’ve assigned to mean “To Do”—it’s a reminder to come back and take notes about the document’s contents.

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The Smash and Grab Checklist kept me organized on this whirlwind research trip by spreading out the work across three days. It kept me accountable and on-track with my database maintenance, and relieved the decision fatigue that often sets in during work travel. I just did what the steps instructed, and when I finished all of my new documents were in my database, tagged and together with their citation information. On past trips this has not always been the case! I feel like I’ve earned my Super User bona fides.

If this nine-point, step-by-step checklist seems like it could be useful to you during your archival trips, become a DEVONthink for Historians Super User. The guide includes 100 minutes of video lessons, the SuperAnnotation template, and a script that transfers your citation information to Bookends, a reference management software.

The Week of Getting Back to Reading

Work has been busy this month, and I've struggled to find energy to read in the evenings. It has even been difficult to stay awake long enough to watch a TV show. But yesterday I was finally able to take a day off and relax enough that I could immerse myself in a good book. I slept in, read for a bit, ran a few errands, read some more, saw friends, and continued reading after Kevin made me a delicious dinner. So finally, after four weeks, I have a recommendation to share.


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Part of the motivation for getting back to reading was that this morning I attended a book club discussion of Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing. The novel follows two branches of a Ghanaian family for seven generations, alternating back and forth between the descendants of two sisters. One sister (Effia) and her descendants remain in Ghana, and while the other sister (Esi) is captured in her village and and sold into slavery in the United States. The lineage of Effia traces the history of African and British slave trading, British colonialism, and Ghanaian independence, while Esi's lineage experiences the indignities of enslavement in the cotton fields of the American South, the chain gangs sent into the coal mines of Alabama, and the discrimination and segregation of northern cities after the Great Migration.

Homegoing excels in four ways:

1) By evoking empathy for the intergenerational trauma that Africans and African Americans have experienced (and continue to experience) as a result of slavery, colonialism, and racism. 

2) By covering 300 years of history on two continents in a way that, while not comprehensive--how could it be, in only 300 pages?--is broadly representative of each generation's particular social norms, legal freedoms, and motivating interests. It's quite a feat. The nearest comparison I can think of, Chimamande Ngozi Adiche's Americanah, manages to cover two continents but is mostly set in the twenty-first century. 

3) By challenging the binary of edenic, righteous, genuine Africa and the corrupted diaspora. Mostly notably, in addition to addressing Africans' complicity in capturing and selling their enemies into slavery--and thus profiting from the transatlantic slave trade--Gyasi manages to weave into this family drama an acknowledgment that even in the nineteenth century the world was small enough that the Asante and Fante tribes knew exactly what was happening to slaves once they reached the Americas.

4) Finally, the form of the novel is interesting to dissect. Despite following fourteen different characters with minimal overlap between their stories, each chapter shares a fundamental core: the marriage plot. Each must end with a man meeting a woman and--through love or, too often, through violence--conceiving the next generation. In this way, they are all love stories, be it love between two partners or between parent and child. 

Despite these merits, at times I felt that the balance between trauma and agency tipped towards the former to an extent that undermined the book's ultimate emphasis on resilience. There is also a motif of fire vs. water that runs unevenly throughout the book, and I'm unsure whether it needed to be highlighted more or pared back. But overall, this book will leave you marveling at how many stories and how much history can be packed into 300 pages without it ever feeling clunky or bloated.

I'm listening to: An old favorite.

I'm watching: "Nanette," Hannah Gadsby's Netflix stand-up special. This is one of those recommendations where the less I say, the more you will enjoy it. It's truly one of the most radical pieces of art I have ever experienced, and I strongly urge you to drop everything and watch it now. You will not regret it. Between Homegoing and Nanette, you'll be left with a lot of thoughts about the power and politics of storytelling. 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! If you're interested in sampling a bite, I currently have a public post up that introduces the theme for July: Cityzenship.

The Week of Lambapalooza

Yesterday was the best day of the year. Our close friends have an annual tradition of throwing a big party for their wide circle of friends and colleagues; the centerpiece of the celebration is a roast lamb (and in recent years a pig as well). For the past five years I have helped with the preparation and roasting of the lamb. We start prepping early in the morning and, after we get the fires going, sit in the sunshine and read and jam to classic rock. And then people begin arriving around 3 PM and the party gets going and the drinks start flowing. 


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Rebecca Traister's All The Single Ladies, which I'm racing to finish before the Feminist Book Club meets on Tuesday evening at White Whale Bookstore to discuss it (plus I want to return my copy to its owner when I visit her next weekend in Atlanta). This morning I finally finished Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen. Petersen devotes each chapter to a prominent woman, from Serena Williams (Too Strong) to Lena Dunham (Too Naked). With each celebrity, Petersen identifies how the controversial aspects of their fame reveals a boundary line between what contemporary American society considers feminine and what it considers unruly. Rather than delivering a single thesis about how misogyny currently operates and what its affect is on women, these case studies show that there are multiple ongoing challenges to the norms and conventions of femininity:

  • What a woman's body should look like (Too Strong; Too Fat; Too Old; Too Pregnant)
  • What a woman's voice, both literal and figurative, should sound like (Too Gross; Too Shrill; Too Loud)
  • How a woman should behave (Too Slutty; Too Queer; Too Naked)

For example, in the chapter on too-pregnant Kim Kardashian, Petersen describes how magazines like Us Weekly and People broke the taboo of printing pictures of pregnant celebrities after their advertisers realized that there was a lot of money to be made by selling products to pregnant women. The way the magazines portrayed pregnancy, however, was as an easy, natural, and transcendent experience in every woman's life. When Kim had preeclampsia, rapid weight gain, and pain during her first pregnancy, Peterson argues she shattered the myth of this "beautiful" life-cycle experience and faced immense public ridicule for not having the typical "cute" baby bump; furthermore, Peterson reminds readers that despite her discomfort Kim refused to wear dowdy maternity clothing and instead walked the Met Gala red carpet in a form-fitting Givenchy gown (albeit one with a bold floral pattern that overwhelmed and obscured her). Kim, in spite of (and because of) being known for her glam put-togetherness, challenged the social conventions of what a woman should look like while gestating a baby. As Petersen argues in the book's conclusion, Kim and the rest of the celebrities she writes about are fundamentally normative--they could not be deviant or unruly otherwise--but that does not minimize the significance of their challenges to the particular standards of femininity that they encounter. 

The case studies are the book's greatest strength and also its primary weakness. Despite insightful analysis of media portrayals of Hillary Clinton as "too shrill," that chapter seemed to drag and I just wanted to move on to another topic. And my favorite chapters, on Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Weiner, ended too quickly and left me wanting a book-length investigation of the topics they explore. Yet the book succeeds, even in the moments you find yourself disengaged, because Peterson consistently reveals fractures in the ways that men and women think about, discuss, perform, and value gender that you had never noticed or questioned before.

I'm listening to: Kanye West's new album, out of curiosity.

I'm watching: "Hard Knock Wife," the new comedy special from Ali Wong. If you enjoyed "Baby Cobra," Wong's first stand-up special on Netflix, you're sure to enjoy this one. The storytelling is less tight--there's no big reveal or punchline at the end of this one--but Wong is more explicitly feminist, calling for policies that protect and benefit new parents.

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! Right now I have a new video up where I introduce the theme for June: feminist entrepreneurship. I've made the post public, so you do not have to be a patron to view it. 

The Week of Beautiful Flowers and Sneezing

Pittsburgh is at its most beautiful in May. The extended winter put a dent in the annual display of daffodils and tulips, but roses are blooming now in full force. I've been trying to work a bit more exercise into my days by going for short walks through my neighborhood, and I am constantly stopping to snap photos of gardens.



Business is busy, busy, busy right now so I'm having to work a bit throughout the weekend, but we're hanging out with friends tonight and I couldn't be more excited to kick back with a glass of wine and shoot the shit with people I love. 


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson, which I stalled out on because I picked up and finished two other books this week. I mostly read Educated, by Tara Westover, in one sitting yesterday morning and found it enjoyable but not radically different from Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle. If you loved that book, you'll find much to like in Westover's memoir, but you might also be underwhelmed by Westover's insights into the value of education.  

The other book I devoured this week, The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, kept me reading past my bedtime each night. On Tuesday I actually went in to work two hours late because I had to finish it. It's the story of Helen Watt, a historian in London who is nearing her retirement. She receives a call from a former student who recently inherited a house and discovered a stack of documents hidden in the woodwork underneath the stairs. He summons her because he remembers she is an expert in early modern Jewish history, and some of the documents seem to include Hebrew. Watt enlists an American graduate student to aid her, and the two discover that the documents were written in the 1660s by a woman scribe. Alternating between the perspectives of Helen and Aaron (her graduate student) in 2000 and Ester the scribe in the 1660s, The Weight of Ink slowly unfurls the mystery of how Ester came to be a rabbi's scribe, how the documents survived until the twenty-first century, and how Helen and Aaron manage to decipher their significance.

I loved this novel for reasons both particular to the story and personal. I cannot emphasize enough how much historical research went into its writing. Every period detail is specific and vivid, from how linens were laundered to what it would have felt like to walk through the London Bridge. Meanwhile the modern sections accurately capture the militancy of archivists and the petty egotism of academia. The result is scenes that construct themselves in your minds eye, without the prose ever being overburdened by descriptive flourishes. It's a beautiful read, but never difficult.

Furthermore, The Weight of Ink asks provocative questions: How do you balance your personal truth and desires against the beliefs and standards of a broader world or community? And who do you hurt more in the process, yourself or others? Is self-preservation a selfish or a radical act? I do not want to say much more, for fear of spoilers, so trust me when I say that Kadish skillfully incorporates these questions into the narrative in a way that feels organic to the characters and organically complicated--there's enough resolution to feel satisfying, but not pat. 

Finally, this novel reminded me why I should not give up on being a historian. Since leaving academia, I've been more keenly attuned to the groupthink, egotism, and elitism that pervades professional historical practice. That's my own baggage, for another post, but reading The Weight of Ink helped me recall what I love about writing history: ensuring a legacy for those who can no longer tell their stories. For too long I've focused on "uncovering truths" and "connecting the past and present," both of which are important and essential functions of the historian--but not the only functions. Sometimes it's enough to tell a person's story, if you believe that the work they did in life mattered. It won't necessarily interest anyone else, or get published, or get you tenure. But we should not always write history to further our own ambitions, nor should we neglect our own desires as storytellers.

tl;dr: I highly recommend The Weight of Ink

I'm listening to: The new album from Columbian pop star Maluma, F.A.M.E., which just dropped this month. A beauty influencer I follow on Instagram was really excited about its release so I saved the album to my Spotify library and have been really enjoying listening to it on my walks around the neighborhood and while I'm cleaning up the kitchen. Most of the tracks are peppy reggaeton, so it keeps you upbeat without tipping over into hectic. 

I'm watching: Hip hop choreography videos on YouTube. From what I glean, if you live in Los Angeles you can go to hip hop dance classes and learn from the dancers who choreograph music videos for famous performers. Then, if you're a good enough dancer, at the end of the class they'll film you doing the moves and put it on YouTube. And, if you're someone like me who watches all sorts of random mindless pop culture on the internet, you can sit for hours watching these dancers' interpretations of the same moves to the same songs. 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! 

The Week of Anniversaries

One year ago today I officially received my diploma and became Avigail S. Oren, Ph.D. It was the best week of my life: I had my family and friends in town to celebrate with me; my mom and mother-in-law and dear friends Desiree and Kip coordinated to throw me a big graduation party (and the weather was truly perfect); and I also got married the weekend before.

As if an omen, that week kicked off what has been the best year of my life. I started a business and found that self-employment really suits me. I joined a co-working space and met smart, kind, and funny co-coworkers, and through the internet I met other self-employed PhDs; all have been mentors and cheerleaders. I took on the role of webmaster for the Urban History Association and began co-editing The Metropole, which has kept me active and engaged in a field I still love. I experimented with Living Room Learning. I found an amazing collaborator in Ada Barlatt and together we developed the DEVONthink for Historians guide. I launched Brisket. I started reading fiction again. I escaped winter and became a snowbird. I was more active in my local community.

I admit that there's a paranoid, superstitious part of me that feels this year has been too good to be true. The other shoe is bound to drop. A new challenge will surface soon. 

That may be true, or it may not be, but I think what's certain is that graduate school was a drag and took a huge toll on my mental health. Earning my PhD and leaving academia gave me sovereignty over my career--and I have made the best of it. For me, that freedom has been the key to happiness.  


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: some good, and varied, books! I had several holds come in from the library all at once--popular new books with long hold lists that I would not be able to renew--and so I put aside I Hotel and the Adrienne Rich collection. I want to focus on the book that I managed to finish, though I'm in the midst of two others--Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson and The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish--that I'll circle back to next week.

I made quick work of Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer. I'd had it on my TBR (To Be Read) list since its publication was announced, even though I don't generally read true crime, because the backstory intrigued me. McNamara died tragically at age 46, leaving the half-finished manuscript for this book to be pieced together by fellow amateur investigators. That fact ultimately handicaps I'll Be Gone in the Dark. By the end I was skimming because there was so much repetition and redundant presentation of data, which I can only assume is the result of there being too many cooks in the kitchen. Nevertheless, the parts that McNamara did write were gripping. The Golden State Killer is a compelling and creepy-as-hell character, a multi-hyphenate criminal (prowler, burglar, rapist, and killer) whose compulsions organically escalate the tension and plot of his narrative. McNamara writes gracefully and humanely about the victims of his crimes, and is self aware about the obsessiveness that both the investigators and the criminal himself share. So it's a book I would recommend, with the caveat that it's a little bit of a mess.

I'm listening to: A new single by El Kuelgue, "Con Dios," which I hope presages a new album.

I'm watching: Season 2 of Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. This show is so underrated, and I cannot understand why it's not getting more buzz! It's a bizarre premise--realtor Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) dies and comes back to life as a more energetic and assertive version of herself, but now with a taste for human flesh--but the show fundamentally explores how families endure dramatic transitions. Yes, an undead mother is an extreme example, but it allows the show to tread universal territory in a way that is SO funny. Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant have snappy and sharp dialogue to work with, making what could have been simple, stock characters into dynamic and energizing personalities. What else do I have to say to convince you to watch it!? 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal!