Research Trip Recap

My ten-day visit to the Center for Jewish History was incredibly productive. Despite being in New York for two weeks, time felt limited and I took the "smash-and grab" approach to archival research. I know I generally grabbed photos of relevant and valuable documents, but it will take me a few weeks to read through them all in detail and see if my first impressions were correct.

I photographed around 1500 pages of Annual Agency Budget Files from the records of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York (UJA-Federation). This humongous collection was just recently processed, and I'm one of the first historians to go through and see how JCCs like the Y of Washington Heights Inwood, Educational Alliance, and Bronx House negotiated annually with the Federation's Distribution Committee. This process was highly regimented throughout the 1950s and '60s. Executive secretaries (god bless them) saved all the important paperwork related to the application, including agencies' initial budget proposals, the Distribution Committee's announcements of annual allocations, and thorough accounting worksheets for each fiscal year. These files are thus a great way to ascertain the health of each individual agency throughout the tumultuous years of the urban crisis, because they report figures like: membership numbers; income from dues; number and kind of programs offered; number of full- and part-time staff; and size and condition of facilities. 

While incredibly rich, these budget materials are also dense and tedious. I am going to have to give myself a crash course in accounting, which is a foreign language to me. I've always been better at spending money than keeping track of it! Ideally, the experience will familiarize me with organizational budgeting, which is a useful skill to have. 

I'll end with a pitch for the American Jewish Historical Society archivists' excellent blog, This Can Go Back to the Archives, which chronicles the processing of the UJA-Federation records. Susan and her team highlight some of the most dynamic and intriguing documents from the collection, and I'm always surprised by what they dig up!


Sometimes visiting an archive is as simple as showing up. Other times, archives require that you schedule a visit two weeks in advance and provide the exact collections and boxes that you plan to view while there. Like most of life, it's usually somewhere in between the two extremes. 

A mandatory step when planning an archival visit is to check the website for their visitation policies, hours, and whether they require researchers to schedule an appointment with an archivist. Archivists are not known for tolerating chutzpah--it's what makes them so good at their jobs--and researchers must learn the rules beforehand in order to ensure a successful visit. The archive I use most frequently (the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History) does not ask researchers to make an appointment, which is convenient because I can set my own schedule when I visit. 

Every researcher has their own "toolkit," but it's pretty standard to bring a laptop, power cord, and camera to an archive. To preserve the materials, you are not allowed to bring in bags, pens, or food and drinks. I always make sure to drink a big glass of water before my visit so I don't get too dehydrated while sitting in the climate-controlled reading room. The other important thing to know about archives before you go is that they are kept really chilly. I usually wear several layers and bring a large scarf (like a pashmina) that can double as a blanket. 

When you arrive at an archive, staff ask you to put away coats and bags in a designated area. Often lockers are provided. I only bring my laptop, iPad, and scarf into the reading room. After settling down at a table, the next step is to submit a call slip for the boxes you want to view first (unless the archive asked you to pre-submit your requests). The slip usually asks for the name of the collection, the call number, and the a list of the boxes you would like them to bring. It's common for archives to place a limit on how many boxes you can call from the stacks (in my experience it is usually five). Depending on the size of the archive and how they are laid out, it can take 20-30 minutes for items to be delivered to the reading room. 

Archivists are very particular about how the materials should be treated. If you are viewing books, especially older ones, they may only allow you to hold one at a time. If the binding is cracked or the book requires special care you are asked to place it in a foam cradle and to be very gentle as you turn the pages. I rarely use older books, so I confess that my description is based solely on what I've seen other people doing. I try to avoid older materials because they stress me out! Also, I like to look at more recent texts that were written on a typewriter. They're easier (and faster!) to read. It's one of the benefits of studying the twentieth century.

There are also best practices for handling papers. To avoid mixing up folders or papers, archivists ask that researchers only look through one box at a time and remove only one folder at a time. It's very important to maintain the order of the collection, so that it continues to correspond with the finding aid and so that future researchers will be able to easily locate what they are looking for. 

When I open up a box, I identify the first folder that I want to look at and then carefully remove it. I note its place among the files with a marker provided by the archive (it's usually a piece of tagboard or half of an old manila file folder). I carefully place the folder on the desk and open it so that the papers are on the right side. As I go through the documents one by one, I place the read pages face down on the left. This keeps them tidy and minimizes the chances that I damage or rip the paper. When I finish with a folder, I place it back in the correct place in the box and move on, and when I finish with the box I return it to the archivists and request a new one. This process of submitting call slips, looking through boxes, and reading documents continues until the end of the archival visit. 

Lost and Finding Aids

I did not major in history as an undergrad, and did not write a thesis on a historical topic, so the first time I ever set foot in an archive was in my second semester of graduate school. This condition--being a graduate student in history that didn't know how to use an archive--had me breathing into a brown paper bag. The first year of graduate school is a nine-month grinding down of your confidence (see: impostor syndrome), and the specter of being berated by an archivist for knowing absolutely nothing  was like twisting the knife into the heart of my fragile emotional being. It worked out well for me, though, because I decided that the best way to cope with my anxiety was to first go to a little archive with a nice archivist, get my feet wet there, and then face the big scary Manuscript Room of the New York Public Library the following day. In that little archive with that nice archivist, I found a wonderful collection of documents that inspired my whole dissertation! So, no regrets.

Now, three years later,  when I go to visit an archive I feel excitement rather than anxiety. By the time I show up, I already know what I'm looking for--and more importantly, where to look for it. That's because I use archival finding aids to figure out what libraries have collections of documents related to the history I am researching. 

What exactly is a finding aid? Well, let's say that a Very Important Woman (maybe a socialite? maybe a radical labor activist?) decided to donate all of her letters, diaries, business records, scrapbooks, and files so that future scholars can learn about her interesting life. She contacts a library she really likes--maybe her alma mater, or maybe a library to which her friends or fellow activists donated their papers--and they agree to preserve her documents for the use of researchers. When the library gets the Very Important Woman's stuff, it's probably in some cardboard boxes. Perhaps they're neatly placed in the same order they were in when they lived in the Very Important Woman's filing cabinet. Or, more likely, they arrive disorganized. An archivist then has to process this collection of documents. Processing means to put the records in an order that makes sense, whether it was the way that the Very Important Woman arranged them, or by placing them in order chronologically by year or thematically by topic (debutante balls and charity dinners, or union rallies and Communist Party meetings). As this order is created, the documents are placed into file folders and then into boxes (like this or this). Some collections fill only one box, but most take up several. Once everything is filed away, archivists create a finding aid; it's a map that tells you, the researcher, what documents are in those boxes and folders. 

Before breaking down the collection into this level of detail, a finding aid begins with a description of the collection. If the collection is of an individual's personal papers, the archivists will also include an autobiographical note.

These records of a Very Important Woman provide valuable insight into 1920s society. Very Important Woman was involved in major events of the 1920s like Big Parties/Rallies with other Very Important People who are historically relevant if you study 1920s society or social movements.

The Very Important Woman was born in 1898 in a big city, to aristocratic parents with no money who worked hard to instill in the Very Important Woman the values of polite society and solidarity. She died after establishing a magazine and foundation dedicated to Charitable Causes and the Social Good.

The beginning of a good finding aid will also list the subjects (topics or individuals or locations) that are especially prevalent in the collection.

After all of this, the archivists describes the contents of each box and folder. Finding aids are rendered in various degrees of detail, which can be challenging. If an archivist was given a substantial amount of time to process a collection, they usually include more detail about what's in each individual folder. Usually, though, a finding aid only tells you the label of the folder. It might say something like "Very Important Woman's Correspondence with Labor Activist," or "Debutante Balls, 1918-1919." As a researcher, you don't know if there's one letter or one hundred letters in that folder, or if "Debutante Balls" refers to parties thrown by the Very Important Woman or parties she attended. When you open that folder, you have no idea if you're in for some fun or some frustration. 

So, how do you find a finding aid? Sometimes it's as simple as Googling "Very Important Woman." More often I use a database called Worldcat to search through many library catalogs at once. It can be unreliable because each library has to sync their catalogs up with Worldcat; if they do not, you might miss something. To be thorough, I also search the catalogs of libraries and archives that would be a logical place for my historical subject (either an individual or institution) to deposit their records. I look at all the public and university libraries in their city, or I look at special archives dedicated to a defining characteristic of my historical subject (like at an archive that specializes in American Jewish history or one that collects materials from social welfare institutions). It's time consuming to go to each library's website and type your search terms into their catalogs, but sometimes you find complementary collections to the one your were looking for. That's always a nice surprise! 

Once I find my finding aids, I then decide if a collection seems valuable enough to justify a visit to that archive. Sometimes it's an easy decision, like when a library has the complete papers of the Very Important Woman who is the subject of your dissertation. Other times, you know you want to write a chapter about the Very Important Woman's favorite charity, and you look at the finding aid for their records--which with your luck are at an archive on the other side of the country--and you realize that the charity only donated one box of documents and all of the folders are labeled "Tax Forms" and dated from the 1970s, well after the Very Important Woman died. It's not worth buying a plane ticket to look at that! That's when you decide to cut the chapter, or to base it on research that has already been done (secondary sources). 

Finding Aids are an invaluable tool to a researcher, but like all tools they vary wildly in quality and helpfulness.* Sometimes you end up with a top-of-the-line power circular saw with laser precision guide and built-in level, and sometimes you end up with this. The more you use finding aids, the more adept you become at working with what you're given!

If you're interested in looking at a few examples, here are a few finding aids from my own research that represent the spectrum of detailedness:

Solender Family Papers (American Jewish Historical Society/Center for Jewish History)

Fort Washington Branch Records (New York Public Library Archives)

Henrietta Scherer Papers (Tamiment Library, New York University)


*Let me make it clear that this is not always the archivists' fault. They are often underfunded and overworked. Most archives have more collections than their existing staff is able to process, but grants to hire more helping hands are really competitive and hard to come by. I love archivists and librarians, and could not do my job without them.