A couple years ago Sean Takats described a process of time-shifting archival research that was a pretty good description and assessment of the power of digital tools in archives. One of his key points was that “we’re simultaneously escalating the evidentiary basis for any research project.” As he said at the time, that wasn’t news to anyone who had been to an archive in the last five years. I bought a good point and shoot digital camera in 2004 for several hundred dollars in order to collect more documents and deal with the growing cost of photocopying. It was a great investment, a workhorse that I made tens of thousands of images with.
My visit to Philadelphia archives last fall and this research trip to Austin-area archives has illustrated a countershift. Takats indicated that the Bibliotheque National de France had become just a very nice library to do research. I find as a single dad that archives have become almost the only place I have the ability to do research. The place I used to time-shift my archival reading to — nights and weekends, are no longer available. After a brief bout of exercise I pick up my son from day care, play out in the yard and make dinner, read some books, take a bath, and then go to bed. After twelve unrelieved hours of work and kid care, I don’t have the emotional energy to perform any work tasks unless a painful deadline is approaching. Even the regular hours of the workday are taken up with teaching and prep, meetings, and mundane bureaucratic tasks. The notion of a 40/40/20 division of Research/Teaching/Service responsibilities is a joke — it’s more like 10/60/30. The special trip to an archive has become again just about the only place I get the uninterrupted time and space to read through a lengthy document or set of primary sources in full.
What are the implications of this? First, it’s that I’m shifting the most important part of my work life to time that I’m not getting paid — the summer. Second, I’m shifting it out of the evenings and weekends I used to cram with work until the birth of my son. That was productive in a sense, but not very healthy overall. Prior to her death, my wife and I only took a single one-weekend vacation in the 8 years we were together. All other travel was for work or family. So that’s good. I realized after a couple of months as a single dad that I could not and should not make my son compete with my work for my attention. I had to find a way to get the work done without compromising how I was raising him. Shifting back to intense archival visits seem to be the answer. Even though I still do take many digital images in the archive, I’ve got to spend more time reading the documents there to have at least a mental index of the documents, and in some cases a pretty full recall of the source contents.
This also means I’m lowering the evidentiary basis for my research. On its face we could say that is a bad thing, but we could also conclude (and I’m trying to do so) that it will be possible to have a meaningful project based on a smaller but concise set of sources.