Archives are like hidden treasure. You never know what you will find inside those acid-free boxes. You may walk in with assumed ideas, but a letter or document can change your tone, direction, or conclusion. Patience and insight are needed to wade through primary source material to find the gold. You hope for serendipity.
I am thankful for knowledgeable archivists who eagerly serve researchers. Some seem like lonely people who hope a researcher will come so they can join a treasure hunt. With more archival material on-line these days, researchers may miss out on the pleasure of working with archivists.
Here is a typical traditional procedure: After checking in, you store your belongings in a locker, except for blank paper and a pencil. You enter the reading room and sit at a desk or table, searching through the finding aid that describes a specific collection of records. You submit an order for a set of boxes. A staff member then collects several boxes and rolls them out on a cart to sit next to you. While keeping everything in the order you find it, you take notes and insert tags on pieces or fill out orders for photocopies you want. A staff member makes the copies and gives them to you, or mails them to you later. Much of the time is “Hurry up and wait.” Hurry (skim) through the boxes, return them, then wait for the next set of boxes to be brought out. (With cell phone cameras, photocopies no longer have to be ordered.)
Here are several places where I have found ‘treasure’:
(1) Special Collections and Archives, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.
After leaving China in 1949, Zhang Fuliang was hired by the president of Berea College to teach sociology. Fuliang and his wife, Louise, also hosted short-term visitors from around the world who were sponsored by the State Department. Visitors appreciated Zhang’s many years of experience working with war refugees in China since the visitors were expected to help poor people in their own countries. Among the reports, pictures and memorandums at Berea, several transcripts of moving talks gave insight into Zhang’s motivation.
(2) International Institute of Rural Reconstruction records, 1914-2018, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York City, NY
Yan Yangchu (James Yen), the lively director of IIRR, learned many lessons while working in a poor county south of Beijing before WWII. After 1949 he used this experience to set up health, education, and agriculture projects in the Philippines, Africa and Central America. After a librarian spent years organizing the IIRR records into more than 130 boxes, they were finally made available to the public. While my husband and daughter enjoyed roaming Central Park and riding city buses one day, I went through two-thirds of the boxes. I found correspondence, reports, speeches, honors, and secret communications. I went back a second time to pick up loose ends.
(3) Naval and Marine Records, National Archives, College Park, Maryland
I have my father’s letters to my mother from his time as an officer for 3.5 years on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk in the South Pacific (but not hers to him!). While sitting in the archives I was moved to see his signature on the Navy deck logs and pictures of his ship loading fighter planes. Though many watches were summarized as “Steaming as before,“ I found his initial report of a fatal accident during a storm, a story he rarely told (with tears). When in D.C. for various conferences, I’ve searched the deck logs twice and my husband went once.
The few hours spent at archives turn into many hours of carefully reading notes and the copies of gathered materials, and then weaving these gems of information into a deeper, richer story.