Guest blogger Dr. Amy L. Montz, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana, writes about her experience conducting research at ATHM:
Archival research is a tricky thing.
There is a lot of planning, of course: the phone calls to make, the emails to send. It is important to establish communication with people you’ve never met before, all with the same purpose: can I, may I, please invade your space, disrupt your work day, ask dozens of questions, and be supervised handling fragile materials in your collection?
When the approval is given, when you have proven that you are, in fact, a legitimate researcher, you need to tell the curator which items or collections you would like to see. This naturally involves more research beyond your initial forays into their collections online. More emails are flung across the wires, more documents are sent—your book summary, their collections list—and by the time you leave for your trip, you have a general idea of the materials you will have the opportunity to see, but oftentimes no guarantee as to whether all materials will be available.
As a new historicist literary critic, I use history and culture to understand literature, and literature to understand history and culture. As a literary scholar working on women and fashion in nineteenth-century novels, my particular brand of history happens to be textiles, ephemera, and other items of domestic everyday. I have conducted archival research for my then-dissertation and now-current book project Dressing for England: Fashion and Nationalism in Victorian Novels now three times in England and once in New England. By this point in my career, I would like to say that I am quite a pro at these introductions: I know how to send the emails, how to search the databases. I know what materials curators will request, and I have a firm grasp on the type of materials I would most want to work with. So when I contact archives, I often ask for specific items of clothing—shawls, crinolines, corsets—and specific items of ephemera—photographs, diaries, letters. Often, there is not enough time in the day to complete the amount of research I want to conduct, even when limited to the materials requested. This is, of course, complicated when I meet a curator who knows her archive inside and out.