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Let the Public Get the Documents


lelick1234
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Hello Folks, 

I have been long-time lurker on this forum but have basically given up hope on graduate school. This is partly because I have an OK teaching job in history that I am getting better at so that I am able to finally have some free-time for historical research. 

 I have been so surprised that my interest in local history (a suburban city north of Los Angeles) has made me feel no regrets abandoning my original research focus: American foreign policy towards the Middle East. But I have a question about archives for independent researchers. In some ways, local history has been easier as far as archival work for me. My community has a very active, powerful local newspaper that offers access to its archives all the way back to 1919. It has been very useful in allowing get an idea about the general thrust of the community's history.

 

However, my particular town was basically a company town controlled by Newhall Land and Farm Corporation. Its archives can be found at the Huntington Library, which I live about an hour away from. I just assumed the public would have access to all archives in California. But no! We can't let the unlettered get their grimy hands and dull minds on the documents. They might not be able to handle it. 

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I have a BA in history (3.95 GPA) from UCSB am very serious in pursuing archival research. It is unclear what constitutes a "qualified researcher" but I have a feeling it means having a PhD in history. The Huntington Library does not explain clearly who is a good candidate to become a "Reader." So I have two questions: 

1. What represents a "qualified researcher"? 

2. How could I show that I am a qualified researcher? Would being a board member of the local historical society be sufficient enough. I am not yet, but I am working towards this.  

3. Why is cutting off the public from access to archives the worst form of academic elitism that will undoubtedly doom the field of history?

Yes, yes, I know some of you are going to say that I am cutting in line in front of people who can do graduate school...but come on.

4.   In a world where academic history is becoming an even more marginalized field, wouldn't it make more sense , in a time where technology has increased the opportunities for the production of historical content,  to just open up the floodgates, let the masses get their dirty fingers on the documents?

--Leo
 

Edited by lelick1234
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Hm? Usually this just means if you don't have a PhD you should get a letter from a direct supervisor who's willing to say you're qualified. That you think your BA, whatever your gpa, should fulfil this requirement just means you don't really have a good grasp of what your skills are relative to others.

Documents are fragile and can't be used without qualification. Those dirty fingers (or even clean ones) destroy the documents over time.

They should digitize them, of course. But access to archives isn't what's killing the humanities.

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But that is the thing. I am not in graduate school, nor does the Huntington Library accept students as "qualified readers." I have no supervisor. This is completely independent research. I need an alternative means of justifying my application to the document masters. Would I have to do side-projects and get some articles published by the local newspaper or something? It seems like unnecessary gatekeeping. I don't think the Reagan library has the same restrictions but I could be wrong. 

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2 minutes ago, AfricanusCrowther said:

In a way that explains your interests and abilities fully but concisely?

The application requires that list highest degree conferred and asks for a professional title. Middle School teacher is not one of the options. 
It does ask for a 250 word explanation about my project and why I need access to the archives. I have already picked out the box of documents that I would want to look at as they are online. So, my research is very specific. That might help. 
 

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3 hours ago, TsarandProphet said:

What do you expect to hear from us? Why making all these assumptions based on a form, instead of filling it and opening a dialog with them?

I guess I am asking whether anyone faced this issue when doing their own archival work. And if anyone has faced an application, what did you write? 

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6 hours ago, AP said:

Wait, there is nothing in that menu that says "educator"? 

Have you called/emailed them? 

No, it does not. It has independent researcher. I am trying my best to build up a non-traditional, working class academic ethos and approach to research. It is almost possible, but the existence of applications to gain access to archives is a bit demoralizing. 

Honestly, I believe contacting them right now would be premature because I am still hashing out my ideas. I am railing against their "elitism" in tongue and cheek sort of way in the original post. But honestly, I do not want to gain access to the archives and then not be adequately prepared. 

 

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25 minutes ago, lelick1234 said:

I guess I am asking whether anyone faced this issue when doing their own archival work. And if anyone has faced an application, what did you write? 

Frankly, you're making a lot of assumptions before you have even tried...I think you're overthinking this. If we're thinking of the same Huntington Library, this is a pretty sizeable institution that probably has hundreds of researchers a year come through its archives (before Covid). They aren't greedily hoarding their archives, they likely just want to make sure they are treated well...a lot of their documents are probably pretty fragile. Private study spaces within the library to go through the documents are also likely pretty limited, so the application process also helps manage that. 

With that in mind, I'd say just fill out the form. If you're uncertain about that, then I'd personally go through their staff directory and email the appropriate person. I'd stress the fact that you are an educator and specifically teach history. Most libraries, in my experience, love the idea of helping teachers and contributing in same way to public/community history. Mention you're a private researcher, and mention exactly what your project is and exactly what box(es) you want. That'll establish that you're serious about this. I'd say the odds are high you'll have no problem getting a yes. 

And if you don't like either of those approaches...find the appropriate person in the staff directory who has a phone number. If they're working in-person, call them. My advisor has shared a few of his difficult stories accessing archives before -- his advice is that if you think they might say "no," always ask in person. If it's in person or on the phone they'll be less comfortable saying no. Better yet, there won't be any record of that "no," so you can always try again. 

Basically...just give it a shot. 

Edited by ListlessCoffee
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44 minutes ago, ListlessCoffee said:

Frankly, you're making a lot of assumptions before you have even tried...I think you're overthinking this. If we're thinking of the same Huntington Library, this is a pretty sizeable institution that probably has hundreds of researchers a year come through its archives (before Covid). They aren't greedily hoarding their archives, they likely just want to make sure they are treated well...a lot of their documents are probably pretty fragile. Private study spaces within the library to go through the documents are also likely pretty limited, so the application process also helps manage that. 

With that in mind, I'd say just fill out the form. If you're uncertain about that, then I'd personally go through their staff directory and email the appropriate person. I'd stress the fact that you are an educator and specifically teach history. Most libraries, in my experience, love the idea of helping teachers and contributing in same way to public/community history. Mention you're a private researcher, and mention exactly what your project is and exactly what box(es) you want. That'll establish that you're serious about this. I'd say the odds are high you'll have no problem getting a yes. 

And if you don't like either of those approaches...find the appropriate person in the staff directory who has a phone number. If they're working in-person, call them. My advisor has shared a few of his difficult stories accessing archives before -- his advice is that if you think they might say "no," always ask in person. If it's in person or on the phone they'll be less comfortable saying no. Better yet, there won't be any record of that "no," so you can always try again. 

Basically...just give it a shot. 

This was an excellent response. I am in a weird place between local boosters in the community who hate it when I post about serious historical topics economics, race, and politics and then the academic establishment. But maybe the academic establishment might be more open. If Covid ever improves in Los Angeles and the archives open up, I will try what you have suggested. 

 

Edited by lelick1234
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@lelick1234 you are not going to get far with that chip on your shoulder. I urge you to consult the acknowledgement sections of published works grounded upon archival research. A pattern that you may notice is that researchers benefit when they approach archivists and archives from a position of respect.

I urge you to put aside assumptions of the way things should be until you spend time doing work in research libraries and archives. In a research library, you move a book over three spaces or up or down a shelf, it may as well have been burned.

In an archive, a document put into the wrong folder in the correct box can be lost to subsequent researchers for a generation. When you take tours of archives, you will hear bloodcurdling stories about individuals altering, defacing, or destroying documents on a whim. You will also learn that private and public figures who donate archival materials often place boundaries on how they are used. On top of that, there are often institutional policies as well as laws and regulations. (When NARA moves materials produced by a presidential administration, the level of security can be on par with that used by the Department of Energy when moving nuclear materials.)

Then figure out ways you can reach out to staff via telephone at the Huntington Library to see if you can gain access based upon your research interests, understanding of archival research, and skill level. @ListlessCoffee and others have provided excellent guidance.

If the answer is "no," then figure out your next steps. One step could be reach out to professional academic historians in SoCal and ask for help. If you follow this path, it is important that you check your attitude and manage your expectations.

On a slightly different track, are you sure that there's no connections between your interests in American foreign relations with the Middle East and Southern California urban history?

https://tinyurl.com/vlg7cm4g

https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/6504843

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In addition to much of the advice here, I'd dig around and see if anyone's written about the history of the town or the company that once ran the place--mine their bibliographies for additional avenues for your research beyond the Huntington Library's collections.  I'd also see what sort of resources are available on the library's website, since many libraries with research archives and collections like that will have some digitized indices and notes that can help you narrow your search when and if you're able to access the archival collection.

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46 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

@lelick1234 you are not going to get far with that chip on your shoulder. I urge you to consult the acknowledgement sections of published works grounded upon archival research. A pattern that you may notice is that researchers benefit when they approach archivists and archives from a position of respect.

I urge you to put aside assumptions of the way things should be until you spend time doing work in research libraries and archives. In a research library, you move a book over three spaces or up or down a shelf, it may as well have been burned.

In an archive, a document put into the wrong folder in the correct box can be lost to subsequent researchers for a generation. When you take tours of archives, you will hear bloodcurdling stories about individuals altering, defacing, or destroying documents on a whim. You will also learn that private and public figures who donate archival materials often place boundaries on how they are used. On top of that, there are often institutional policies as well as laws and regulations. (When NARA moves materials produced by a presidential administration, the level of security can be on par with that used by the Department of Energy when moving nuclear materials.)

Then figure out ways you can reach out to staff via telephone at the Huntington Library to see if you can gain access based upon your research interests, understanding of archival research, and skill level. @ListlessCoffee and others have provided excellent guidance.

If the answer is "no," then figure out your next steps. One step could be reach out to professional academic historians in SoCal and ask for help. If you follow this path, it is important that you check your attitude and manage your expectations.

On a slightly different track, are you sure that there's no connections between your interests in American foreign relations with the Middle East and Southern California urban history?

https://tinyurl.com/vlg7cm4g

https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/6504843

Yes, this advice is well-taken. I do have a bit of chip on my shoulder that might not be warranted. But it is based on the fear that I would not even get the chance to prove that I can learn how to handle documents properly. You do, however, bring up an important issue. 

When Covid is over, I should visit some research libraries to get comfortable with the process and people who responsible for keeping these important documents for future research. I believe that the Reagan library does offer access to the public without an application process. There might be others. Luckily, I currently live in the city I am researching, which is 30 minutes from Los Angeles, which probably has plenty of archives I can gain access to.  Now that I think of it, the local historian who runs the historical society hinted that the community's archives are a mess. Maybe if I could offer to help, I could make a compelling case for having experience with working responsibly with documents. 

Also, you are probably right. Maybe making a good impression with archivists by phone might help when they go over my application. They can attach a charming, intellectually stimulating and relevant conversation to an otherwise lackluster application. 

Good advice overall. 





 

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2 hours ago, lelick1234 said:

Yes, this advice is well-taken. I do have a bit of chip on my shoulder that might not be warranted. But it is based on the fear that I would not even get the chance to prove that I can learn how to handle documents properly. You do, however, bring up an important issue. 

When Covid is over, I should visit some research libraries to get comfortable with the process and people who responsible for keeping these important documents for future research. I believe that the Reagan library does offer access to the public without an application process. There might be others. Luckily, I currently live in the city I am researching, which is 30 minutes from Los Angeles, which probably has plenty of archives I can gain access to.  Now that I think of it, the local historian who runs the historical society hinted that the community's archives are a mess. Maybe if I could offer to help, I could make a compelling case for having experience with working responsibly with documents. 

Also, you are probably right. Maybe making a good impression with archivists by phone might help when they go over my application. They can attach a charming, intellectually stimulating and relevant conversation to an otherwise lackluster application. 

Good advice overall. 





 

honestly, every archive is different.  While the applications are used to track researchers, they also let archivists know of your interests so they can guide you to appropriate documents. The staff do like knowing what you're into so they can be helpful and, maybe, in some cases, link you up with another researcher doing similar topic (with permission from both sides, of course). As long as you respect them and appreciate their hard work, they can be quite generous with their time and knowledge. They're used to helping new researchers like yourself. Not much to worry about, really.

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  • 1 month later...

I have no experience with the Huntington Library, but I research a topic for fun (as in, all of my credentials are in a completely different, non-humanistic area), and I've gotten access to the couple of archives I need (albeit in Europe) simply by following their access procedures and talking about what I need the access for. I find that archivists need to know who you are and that you'll be respectful with the documents, but they're not gatekeeping for the sake of gatekeeping. Have you tried actually applying for access before you posted this rant about how you feel rejected?

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  • 3 weeks later...

@lelick1234,

FWIW, ICYM here.

AHA Letters of Introduction/Courtesy Requests
It is sometimes difficult to gain access to institutions while doing research. This is why the American Historical Association provides Letters of Introduction to assist researchers in gaining access to foreign research facilities, special collections, and government archives.

Courtesy Requests for independent historians (scholars without formal affiliation with academic institutions) seeking access to archives, colleges, or university libraries in the United States or abroad, for research purposes, are also available upon request.

The only requirement for obtaining either of these letters is that one must be an AHA member. If interested, please complete the following Google Form.

Please be as brief as possible.
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  • 3 weeks later...
On 2/13/2021 at 2:21 PM, lelick1234 said:

I guess I am asking whether anyone faced this issue when doing their own archival work. And if anyone has faced an application, what did you write? 

Yes, private, and even public, archives and libraries often require credentials for research. It's not gatekeeping, it's making sure that the documents live to tell the tale. Even when doing PhD dissertation research, some institutions require an interview with archivists and other sorts of applications. Others still don't allow access to anyone bar a handful of people.

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