Kirsch, Gesa E., and Liz Rohan, eds. Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.

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Summary:

This edited collection is designed to provide a variety of descriptive accounts of doing archival research as a way to illustrate the range of methods and strategies available to researchers. The book is not meant to outline “best practices” of archival research or debate questions of methodology, but rather sets out to explore and discuss those aspects of the research process like affect, serendipity, and the influence of familial and cultural histories that often get left out of discussions of research methods. In addition to providing descriptive accounts that make the research process more transparent, the editors argue that the book “enriches our notion of what constitutes an archive” by highlighting places where rich research material can be found outside the walls of official archives. The collection is divided into four sections: “When Serendipity, Creativity, and Place Come Into Play;” “When Personal Experience, Family History, and Research Subjects Intersect;” “When Personal, Cultural, and Historical Memory Shape the Politics of the Archives;” and “When the Lives of Our Research Subjects Parallel our Own.”

Chapter Highlights:

  • David Gold, “The Accidental Archivist: Embracing Chance and Confusion in Historical Scholarship”: Gold describes the way that he used difficult questions and problematics of identity into fuel for the research process.
  • Christine Mason Sutherland, “Getting to Know Them: Concerning Research into Four Early Women Writers”: Argues for the importance of place (as sometimes containing the living spirit of a person) and physical contact with artifacts as providing important context for historical research that helps avoid “presentism.”
  • Wendy B. Sharer, “Traces of the Familiar: Family Archives as Primary Source Material”: Sharer argues that we need to talk about the emotions that bring us to research projects and question the idea that emotion invalidates our questions and insights. She argues that we also need to challenge the privileging of the “official” archives and think about the archives that exist informally in our lives.
  • Gail Y. Okawa, “Unbundling: Archival Research and Japanese American Communal Memory of U.S. Justice Department Internment, 1941-45”: Okawa describes a process of trying to find information and artifacts kept suppressed that were ultimately uncovered through a lot of networking and communal contributions spurred by word-of-mouth. In other words, the material Okawa found would not have been uncovered through strictly traditional research methods.
  • W. Ralph Eubanks, “Mississippi on My Mind”: Addresses the question of how you use the limits of the archives (like sealed records and dead ends) as a starting point for other kinds of research?

Comments:

What I find most useful about this book is it’s various discussions of the way that emotion factors into the research process. While the editors argue that a personal, affective attachment to the work creates the richest historical research, the work of several contributors testifies to the fact that emotion and affect do not detract from the research process but rather enable methodological creativity and innovation.

Key Quotes:

“We are convinced […] that the most serious, committed, excellent historical research comes from choosing a subject to which we are personally drawn, whether through family artifacts, a chance encounter, a local news story, or some other fascination that sets us on a trail of discovery, curiosity, and intrigue. That personal connection can make all the difference in our scholarly pursuit: it brings the subject to life and makes us more likely to pursue hunches, follow leads, and spend extra time combing through archival materials than we would without a ‘personal attachment.'” (Kirsch and Rohan, 8)

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