What I mean when I say “I’m going to the archive”

What I mean when I say “I’m going to the archive”

As I caught up with my high school friend Lindsey and her husband Austin last night, I casually mentioned that tomorrow I would “be headed back to the archive.” Lindsey stopped me and said, “I’m sorry, but you always say that, and I don’t know what the ‘archive’ is.”

I realized that I do that. A lot. So here’s a post generally explaining that (1) I’m still working on my PhD, and (2) what it is that I do when I say “I’m going to the archive!”

Wait, you’re still working on your PhD?

Yes. I am. It is tentatively titled “Midwestern Liberalism in the Age of Reagan, 1978-1992,” directed by Fr. Steven Avella at Marquette University. I will be done sometime between May 2019 and 2020. (I hope this forces us to move on the next question in about 85% of conversations I have with family/friends/family friends.)

That’s all I know right now. You can read more about where I’ve been and where I’m going in my series on Barnstorming the Midwest.

Why do you need to go so many places?

These are the primary sources for my dissertation. Think a DQE from AP US History, except no one has chosen the sources for me; I have to go find them, read them, assess their value to my research, and record them somehow.

What are the sources?

Generally speaking, the archives I use are (semi-)curated collections of primary sources–papers, writings, ephemera, and so on–detailing the activities of an organization, event, or individual. (That’s been complicated for historians with the emergence of oral historiescommunity archives, and the Internet, but I digress.)

How do you figure out what you want?

I’ll show more of this later, but essentially, this is the process:

  1. I am interested in the politics of the DFL Feminist Caucus, one of the Twin Cities feminist groups relevant to liberalism in the 1980s. They have not been adequately written about in the political history of the Midwest and Minnesota (save Barbara Stuhler’s No Regrets about Joan Growe’s 1984 Senate campaign), so I want to write more about them.
  2. I want to look through their meeting minutes, newsletters, internal documents, and press clippings to see what they thought, how they organized, who they recruited, and what they did. This helps me show the extent of their impact on Minnesota liberalism.
  3. I search something like WorldCat if I have no idea where their papers would be. Type, for example, “DFL Feminist Caucus” (no quotes) into that link, and you get this results page. I would generally follow that link.
  4. Since I know these papers are going to be at the Minnesota Historical Society (which contains 95% of the collections relevant to my dissertation on Minnesota), I go to their search tool and type in “DFL Feminist Caucus.” I get these results.
  5. I am awesome at what I do and get the search right on the first try (heavy sarcasm), so I click on the first result and read through a (sometimes) detailed description of the collections. Here’s the one for the DFL Feminist Caucus.
  6. Because my dissertation is on liberalism between 1978-1992, I generally look in that finding aid for the years that match my needs. For the DFL Feminist Caucus, because there are only four boxes, I look at all four. For others, like Congressman, Minneapolis mayor, and (most relevant to my dissertation) failed 1978 DFL primary candidate for Senate Don Fraser, the sheer number (273!!!) of boxes means I have to spend a few nights before the archive trip looking at what boxes I want to go through, organizing them by importance, and possibly contacting the archive to tell them I’m coming. Smaller archives need more time to fish out boxes because they’re criminally understaffed and under-visited, and sometimes they’re actually stored off-site and require 24-72 hours’ notice.

So are all these archives attached to museums?

No. They’re wherever figures have given collections of papers, generally at museums, research centers, state historical societies, or universities. George McGovern donated a large number of his papers to his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, along with providing funds for a beautiful library in his family’s name. In Wisconsin, many political figures like Dave Obey (D-WI7) have their papers housed through the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collections, which are farmed out to state satellite schools in Stevens Point, Stout, Green Bay, La Crosse, and so on, held in their libraries’ departments of special collections (go check yours out! It’s cool). Here’s a fun map of the archives I think I’ll have to visit when it’s all said and done:

That’s not entirely complete, but I think it demonstrates the various places I’ll be traveling.

So you get to the archive, and…

Well, there’s a whole lot of stuff. Sometimes you have to register, sometimes you pay a fee, sometimes you meet with an archivist to explain what you’re looking for, etc. There’s usually a set of rules telling you things like “Don’t use pens, don’t chew gum/eat/drink, be quiet, etc.” You sign your name to that, and if an archivist wanted they could absolutely get me to sign away my firstborn, because after I make sure I can take pictures, I read them about as seriously as I do a public WiFi terms of use. Eventually, though, you follow these general steps:

(1) Walk in and pick a table.

Here’s what the Minnesota Historical Society’s Gale Library Archives look like. I walk in, pick a table, and set up my laptop and notes:

The Weyerahaeuser Reading Room at the Minnesota Historical Society Gale Family Library.

Because I take notes on my laptop and use it to look up things I’ve never heard of or don’t understand, I generally look for a desk that’s preferably near the back and adjacent to an outlet. At the MHS, table C7 is my jam.

(2) Fill out a request slip and turn it in.

This week I’m working in the papers of Carol Connolly, a Saint Paul feminist who was co-chair of the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus (MWPC), a candidate for Saint Paul City Council, and eventually wrote a gossip/political column for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and other area newspapers. Of particular interest to me in her papers were boxes 4, 5, 15, 7, 3, and 2. In that order. There’s other stuff in there I need, but since I’m on a time crunch, I’m starting there, prioritizing, and can come back to the other things later.

Using the information on that page, I fill out a request slip, using the name of the collection, the box numbers, and the call numbers. Here’s what that looks like:

Archives staff keep the top white copy and return a yellow carbon to me for my records. I can also request that they “hold” boxes for subsequent days, so that if I don’t finish a box one day, I can come back to it the next.

Once I’ve filled that out, I turn it in to the request desk:

If I’m really on top of my game, I’ve emailed the archivists and the boxes are waiting for me. I generally do this when I’m headed to out-of-town locations. Otherwise there’s a wait of anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes for a staffer to fetch the boxes out of secure storage and bring them to my desk. Researchers can request boxes up to 30 minutes before the library closes.

(3) Open the box and see what I’m working with.

An archive staffer wheels a cart or carries a box out to me. For me these come in two varieties: bankers’ boxes and archives boxes.

Left: What I call a bankers’ box, taken of Box 15 of Carol Connolly’s personal papers at the MNHS.
Right: Archive box photo, courtesy of Macoupin County Archives. URL: http://macoupinctygenealogy.org/archives/box-archives.jpg

Because, like I said, I’ve recorded what I want to see in each box, I have a rough idea of the folders I’m looking for. Either way, I open the box and look at the folders organized inside:

Half a folder, half a folder, half a folder more.

I use that pink marker to keep my places, as I can only ever have one folder out of the box at a time, and those folders need to be kept in the exact order in which I find them. You leave everything exactly as you find it. I pull a folder out of the box, mark my place, lay the folder flat on the table, and begin reading through the papers, looking for things which comment on Minnesota, Midwestern, and national politics as they pertain to feminist issues and their relationship to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

One folder at a time, paged through like a book. I’m lucky that a lot of my sources (90%, I’d guess) are typed. My colleagues like Matt Douglas have to learn paleography (deciphering handwriting)…then use that while reading 18th-century French manuscripts. In France.

(4) Take a scan

Look at that! A draft of an article about the founding of the Minnesota Choice Voters PAC, which helps me illustrate how women’s political activists reached across party lines to pro-choice voters, both DFL and I-R! While this is virtually unheard of today, it’s a continuation of organizing GOP feminists which survived the general takeover of the Republican Party by the New Right. Women’s groups actually endorsed an I-R primary candidate for Minnesota’s First Congressional District, Nancy Brataas, in 1984, though she lost the primary to sales manager Keith Spicer, who was whipped by centrist DFL stalwart Tim Penny even during the Reagan landslide over Mondale.

This group probably in some way contributed to crossover voters for Independent-Republican gubernatorial candidate Arne Carlson over pro-life DFL incumbent Rudy Perpich in 1990, especially among suburban voters. But that’s a hunt for a different day. Now I make a note in a notepad document of what it says, maybe pulling out a choice quote, and fire up my phone’s Google Drive app.

Open Google Drive, open the folder I want to scan the file into, start a new scan, and frame the image.
(Yes, I took a picture of me taking a picture. Good thing my Google Chrome browser filters out “pesky whipper-snapper” from most websites.)

If you know me, you know my luck with phones. I somehow bricked the soft keys on the bottom of my last Google Nexus 6, but it still takes excellent pictures and is virtually an iPod which connects to WiFi. This allows me to keep my phone for text/call/navigation purposes, especially when I’m on the road in new cities, and still get about 8-9 hours of scanning done. I open Google Drive, go to my folder for Carol Connolly (Dissertation Research –> Minnesota –> Individual Activists –> Carol Connolly –> Box 2 –> subfolder, if necessary), and take a scan.

My Drive scanner will attempt an auto-crop of the document, made easier when I place it on a contrasting (usually much darker) surface.

I don’t want to run afoul of publishing rules, so I won’t post a full scan, but these upload at high resolution, meaning that I can reprint memos on 8.5×11 paper to read and mark up for my own usage. I give it a title, usually by date (YY-MM-DD, always two digits for each) and subject for easy-ish sorting, research, and writing.

(5) Lather, rinse, repeat as necessary

When I get through a box–this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours, depending on how full the box is, how many folders I need, and how many notes I take–I return it to the desk. If I have more boxes still on that request form, they wheel me the next box. If I don’t, I turn in a new request slip and wait for that box to reach my table.

What about microfilm? Do you use that?

Yep! I don’t care for the large booth-style readers that the MHS has, though, so I prefer to Interlibrary Loan (ILL) those to Marquette, where I take PDF scans of them and print them out for my own storage and edification. Those are useful for PDFs of newsletters like Wy Spano’s Politics in Minnesota, which gives a really, really good state-level portrait of political issues in a given week. I actually did that for four publications in late 1970s Minnesota (the Minnesota LeaderSCOOP!Common Ground, and the North Country Anvil) which formed the basis of my Master’s essay. But microfilm sources exist for me! I just don’t use them as much.


That’s about all I’ve got for you. Most archives are open during normal business hours, some variation on the 9-to-5, so I generally work as long as I can, save for a quick lunch/coffee break if I really need. Afterwards, when I’m not sightseeing in Pierre or Iowa City or anywhere else I go this summer (stay tuned!), I look over a few of the sources, read a couple secondary sources if I feel up to it (currently working on a biography of Nick Coleman), and skim through the finest in blogging on Northwestern and Big Ten football.

Have questions? Have thoughts? Feel free to leave them in the comments. I hope this has given you at least a little window into what I do and why I do it. Feel free to follow me on here (I try to avoid Facebook cross-posts) if you like, and if you see that I’ll be visiting your town, be sure to get in touch! I’d love to see you (does not apply to Chris and Tim).

To wrap up, if you read almost 2000 words on what I do when I say “I’m going to the archive,” I both thank you and humbly implore you to find better things to do with your day. Like go back to the main page and read about my summer travels…

2 thoughts on “What I mean when I say “I’m going to the archive”

  1. I really enjoyed this post!! In fact, I’ve been enjoying reading about all of your barnstorming adventures this summer. Keep up the good work and I can’t wait to read more!!

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