Archives and Accessibility

Files at the National Archives

I sat in the dusty velvet and slightly moldy smelling AC’d air of a hall on a campus, watching an elderly scholar embarrassingly detail his student’s academic career — the lengths the student had been forced to go to when the advisor didn’t think the topic would work, the desperate search for grants, the months of research in far-flung areas of the world, and finally, the student’s success and contribution to the field and his acceptance of a tenure-track job offer right after he graduated with his PhD. A PhD that, at the end of this one last round of humiliation, the professor would joyfully hand to the berobed student. Graduation time. That advisor was proud of his student, and rightly so.

But it raised an important question for me, as I sat there listening to the AC and the advisor compete for who could rattle on the loudest and longest. It’s actually one that, as a student with disabilities, I’ve been struggling with for some time. How important is it for your career or research to actually physically go to the archives?

Archival research seems to be the gold standard in the humanities, a romanticized Indiana-Jones like adventure in search of the lost artifact of bygone generations. Here, it seems to say, is a scholar that is determined. A scholar who knows his stuff and has made the Big Discovery. A scholar that knows how to get funding from outside sources, too, in order to do research, because many colleges or graduate programs can’t cover the cost of an entire trip. Or, conversely, you’ve just found the rare scholar that is independently wealthy! “Surely,” I imagine a grizzled search committee thinking, “this is the scholar for us!”

Whether that scenario is true or not, I don’t actually know, never having served on a search committee myself. What I do know is that there are grants and fellowships out there to do archival research in libraries and collections across the globe. Some of them have specific requirements. For instance, there are travel grants only for European research, or they come with a residency stipulation — so many months spent in the area, perhaps giving the occasional talk or presentation. Some provide extra money for housing, food, and travel, and others do not.

These sort of grants seem to assume a few things: 1) you will be allowed to leave your campus; 2) you are able to travel; and 3) you are able to stay away from your home base (family, work, social obligations) for an extended length of time.

It’s difficult, even as a highly-ranked professor, to get time off from teaching duties. Not all campuses can afford to give their professors research sabbaticals for the length of time of the fellowship/grant, or so I’ve been given to understand. For lower-ranked professors – or adjuncts! – problem 1 might be the undoing of the entire quest. Problem 2: if you are disabled, is the archive accessible? Will you be able to continue with medical care if necessary? What if your condition isn’t entirely stable? Is there a properly equipped hospital nearby, or good roads to get to one, even? And lastly, number 3. Most research grants and fellowships are not set up with a family in mind. If you are a single working mom, spending 6 months on-site at an archive, far from home… is that really a feasible situation?

There’s a twitter feed trying to raise discussion on this very issue.

I personally think that in some situations, hands-on research is important. I’ve heard of fabulous accidental discoveries in archives, documents buried in boxes that the library didn’t even know it had. I’ve heard tales of students canoeing up African rivers and sailing on tall ships as part of their research. I think it all sounds wonderful, and exciting, and at the moment, completely physically impossible for me. My body is broken.

I am lucky enough to live in a digital age, though. Smart phones can take a picture, change it into a pdf, and put it in cloud storage in less than a minute. I have hopes that, although some grants should remain traditionally-oriented, there are other options also available. What if a travel grants would allow for the money to be put, not towards a plane ticket to Finland, but for a Finnish librarian to copy a few pages of a journal? How about if there were options for researchers to break up their long residency requirements into a few short trips of a couple weeks each? What if the grant amount and time required was less, but it came with extra money to hire a replacement and allow you to leave the 5 classes you teach for the college?

There is an entirely new generation of young scholars rising through the ranks. They’re arguably more diverse, and have different needs than the previous generations. Many have proven their determination and flexibility by continuing to achieve despite overwhelming odds and daunting situations. If archives and foundations want to continue to attract the best scholars of the time — who may or may not be single working mothers, or disabled students, or overworked lecturers — the grant system needs to become more flexible as well.





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