Undergraduates in the Archives – Gotkin 4
4What are some of the challenges you have encountered?
BA in Media, Culture, and Communication, Class of 2011 – NYU
PhD Student, Annenberg School for Communication – University of Pennsylvania
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Doing undergraduate archival work can be like learning to ride a bike without training wheels. In most classes, the readings and discussions act as essential compasses in guiding the student through the semester. In the archive, most, if not all, bets are off; rarely are there already made tutorials on organizing and making sense of the productive entropy that often marks an archive. How are we to situate a newly discovered text if we have not even finished our undergraduate prerequisite courses?
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For me, the most challenging moments in the archive were the earliest, both because I was adjusting to the demands of archival methods and because I had only a small number of anchoring texts echoing in my head to help me make sense of anything I found. In fact, I probably missed a number of promising leads in the archive because I did not know to look for them.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 A good friend and I won a small grant at NYU for a research project about marginalia. We were to trace the marginalia of a particular ancient religious text, the Hermes Trismegistus. While I was scouring libraries in Paris for the history of the text’s early translation, my partner was in New York looking for evidence of contemporary readers’ marks on the book. My job was to plot the ancient scribbles, which seemed easy enough before I actually entered the stacks (see Figure 3). I was looking for the text itself while piecing together others’ accounts of the its migrations.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As it turns out, the Hermes Trismegistus is an enduringly baffling historical object and its ancestry is riddled with gaps. A more experienced researcher would know how to explain this fitful history and perhaps use the inconsistencies and question marks as launching pads for substantive contributions. But since it was my first time in the archive for a sustained and labor-intensive project, they instead weighed on me like chains. Not only did I have trouble tracing the marginalia themselves, I had trouble explaining how I was having trouble.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I realize now that this situation is not so much overcome with academic training as it is more efficiently handled with it. That moment of chaos and crisis is in fact a prerequisite to clear thinking, in my experience. As an undergraduate I was overwhelmed by the disorder of the archival process; but then again, these troubles might have been the best training.
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