Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Research World: On archives and concentration

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was a little ambivalent about this trip to the archives; I had too much to do, and so on--all work that I was supposed to be doing and never actually completing. What I hadn't counted on is the magical powers of concentration that research libraries somehow beam in to the heads of those in their research rooms.

Think about it. You leave a very hot, humid space outdoors, where you're trying to figure out all the basic daily life in a new space (How do I get back to where I live? When does the bus come? How do I get my key/print documents/get some tea/do laundry?) and are consequently feeling frazzled.

Then you go into a cool, quiet research room where you know what you're supposed to be doing. Even though there's wireless internet in the room, you barely notice it except to look up something related to the archival materials you're reading. You don't fidget, and you don't think about the other writing you're supposed to be doing. You work your way through the folders, reading, taking pictures with your newly silent camera, transcribing, and otherwise doing the work you know you're there to do.

You're in Author space. Everything you do for 7-8 hours in that room relates to Author. You start making connections just because of the sheer volume of Author time you're putting in. Even when you walk somewhere for lunch and the heat hits you as you leave the building, your brain is still working on Author questions.

Best of all, you feel capable of making judgments now that you couldn't when you first started to look at the papers. You recognize not only Author's handwriting but that of various associates, so you can tell who is writing what. You get to know the issues that the letter writers are talking about, even if they're using some shorthand way of alluding to them.

Even outside the reading room, you don't want to let the world intrude except for some escapist reading or a little Netflix. You ignore the news and various crises in education; you stop looking at Facebook and Twitter. All of it seems too noisy and stressful if you're in Research World.

I'd like to bottle Essence of Research World and take it back home with me.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

How I love that feeling. LOVE it.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Another Damn Medievalist and I talk about how we both get much more work done at the BL than at our respective home places (office or home study). And that's even in the regular old Humanities Reading Rooms, not only in MSS or Rare Books. I think this tells me that going to a research library where other people are diligently working has a concrete effect on one's own work ethic. (Hm, maybe I should start going to not-so-far-away R1's graduate library once a week this year.)

Anonymous said...

I do work at a fairly fierce rate in research libraries when my time there is limited, which for me usually means they're in Catalonia. The fear of going home without enough done to source the hoped-for outcome is horrifying enough that I'll miss meals and catch up after the place shuts. I have much more trouble getting that paranoid magic focus when I know I can easily go back somewhere (so, my home institution's libraries). So there's a kind of externally imposed discipline at work here, perhaps? It's not necessarily a joyful process for me, anyway, at least not once the clock starts ticking, and with a short-term archive trip the clock is always ticking. It's more like swimming a mile and then feeling fantastic about it once you're out of the pool. (I don't know how anyone can enjoy swimming a mile for itself, it's just tedious.)

Anonymous said...

If you can bottle that essence, please let me know. I will pay.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. I heart archival research, truly, for every reason.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

OK, I knew I lived in Bizarro World (see post at Dr Virago's): I enjoy swimming a mile for its own sake. I like the feel of the water, and I enter a sort of meditative state. In fact, there's a sort of concentration on the task at hand that is not unlike the research-library state.

undine said...

Dame Eleanor, I do, too! I am not a swimmer in that way but can see how it would lead to that kind of intense concentration.

Dr. Virago, I almost wish I could stay there to just do regular work. I think it's the presence of other people that helps.

Jonathan, I like that description--"paranoid magic focus." I think you're right about the externally imposed discipline. It's the feeling that if you're not working on this every second, you're going to miss something (though I can't go without meals without getting dizzy).

Nicoleandmaggie--if I could bottle it, I could be a wealthy woman!

Profacero--I love archival research, too!