10 February 2016

Archival research can be truly daunting

by Marc Masurovsky

Archival research can be truly daunting, no, let’s be clear, it is overwhelming and intimidating. And it is addictive.

The digital world is ubiquitous. Many of us cannot get through the day without “signing on”, clicking on a website, “googling” keywords, looking for art objects, artists, galleries, collectors, dealers, exhibits, framers, robbers, victims, you name it. The Internet is as good as the information which is made available to virtual searching.

The Internet is upon us, around us, at our fingertips. We can consult digital archives at any time of the day or night, documents which have been either photographed or scanned and compiled in clever ways with or without finding aids and inventories, so that we can find them more easily. These documents are “tagged”, described, to make it harder or easier for us to find them.

Physical archives still dominate our research lives, those where we choke on historical dust, where we actually get to touch the documents, stored in grey Hollinger boxes, or big fat oversized tan cardboard boxes, or we get to play with microfilms and microfiches, which only twenty years ago, were the peak of archival storage technology or so it seemed.

Research. For those who really enjoy getting lost in an archive, much like getting lost in the stacks of a library or a bookstore, reading finding aids, ordering boxes or microfilms, lifting files crammed with documents from their boxes, scrolling through images on a microfilm, searching for clues, seeking documents that might answer a riddle or two about a historical kerfuffle that happened many decades ago.

This might all sound like the raving words of a hopeless geek, but research is an acquired taste, rooted perhaps in a(n) (un)healthy dose of curiosity, sprinkled with stubbornness, persistence, and a refusal to accept the fact that there is no answer to the question that prompted the research in the first place. In the most extreme cases, arduous research in an archive can become an excuse for not writing, not committing the fruits of research onto paper. We all subject ourselves to such torture. It makes us human.

When you read a document, look for what is not written, ask: why was it written? what was its point: what is it not saying?

Never give up.

Ask questions.

Don't let up. 

Stay curious. 

Be inquisitive.