where the writers are
The Writer in the Archives
Title Page of Phillis Wheatley Poetry Collection, 1st Ed.

Greetings!  I have been having a total blast for the last couple of days doing research on one of the poets I'm writing about in my current book project.  There is something about going solemnly into a very quiet room with a box or folder of very old, fragile documents, once held by the very person you're writing about, that makes my eyes (and brain) light up.  Handwriting alone gives you an often otherwise unavailable look into the life of a subject of research.  Putting aside the interest in the sensational elements of the personal life of a public figure, just getting a sense of the person's little quirks and ways of thinking -- as recorded in journals, drafts, letters, and such -- can be so exciting!  And for me, yesterday, seeing an oft-read poem unfold from a barely recognizable first draft, to increasingly different and more polished intermediate drafts, to its final form, was absolutely amazing. It can be quite startling to recognize that a critical phrase or significant idea that really makes the final poem might be completely absent from the first couple of drafts!

What's also interesting for me is the feeling I have when I'm doing archival research.  I spend oodles of time in libraries.  I'm one of those people who checks out books that last circulated 3 decades ago -- and one of those people who annoys others by recalling the very popular titles, too!  But this is all what academics call "secondary research."  Archival research, on the other hand counts as "primary research," and I never feel so thoroughly like a researcher as I do when I'm breathing in the dust of some rare first edition or squinting at the nearly illegible notes on a thin, yellowing sheet of paper.  It feels extra-serious, somehow, as ridiculous as that may be.  I was lucky enough to get a fellowship in 2007 from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is one of the richest sources of material for people studying Africa and the diaspora.  (The image of the title page of Phillis Wheatley's 1773 poetry collection, pictured above, comes from the Schomburg's Digital Archive -- the digitization factor being a subject for another blog post...)  What a resource that has been for my work!

My research is for an academic book, a book of literary criticism.  But I know that poets, fiction writers, and writers of more general audience non-fiction books also do archival research on people and events.  How many of you have gone, not into the stacks, but into the archives?  Did you enjoy it?  How did it make you feel?  Was it valuable for the writing you ultimately produced?  And did it hold a value for you outside of the writing-related reason that brought you there in the first place?


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The last time I really

The last time I really "lived" in the library was when I was in graduate school. This was in the prehistoric days before the proliferation of online resources. Google wasn't even a twinkle in anyone's eye. the internet that Al Gore invented wasn't even thought of by the person who really invented it. No, it was all about books and microfiche.

My mother was a library emplyee for years, and I spent many Saturdays in there with her, reading, finding all the hidden treasures in the fiction section.

I miss that--and yet, I like the access I have now to so much information. It's there, right at my fingertips.



Jessica Barksdale Inclan

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have your cake and finger it, too!

No need to choose between archives and internet!  Both are precious.  A lot of the archives are going onto the Internet, as we speak, which I alluded to in my post. That makes it possible to get a sense of them without leaving your house; you can read them, answer certain questions.  But nothing online can reproduce the experience of holding the text, turning the pages . . .  I read an article about the real disadvantages of digitization as a replacement for archival work -- the author's list goes beyond this experiential aura I'm describing, to raise some worthy points about what is lost to researchers who don't interact with the documents or artifacts themselves.  I'll try to look that up and add it to my post, if/when I get a minute.

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I have seen actual post cards sent by Kafka, which is always a boost. But what most interests me now is the Kafka material supposedly unfound.

There are reportedly 20 notebooks, in addition to 35 letters that Kafka wrote to his last lover. These were in her possession until 1933, when taken by the Gestapo (Kafka lived with his lover, Dora, the last year of his life, in Berlin). The captured German (Nazi-confiscated) documents are in Poland, where they were apparently relocated when East Germany fell. They were once all in Katowice, but now are scattered at the national archives (8 branches) and perhaps also elsewhere in secret unopened archives.

A search is currently on for them.

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Ah - microfiche!

Ah - microfiche!

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if you're following that search, . . .

. . . I hope you'll keep us posted, Dale. Those notebooks and letters would indeed be a huge find!

Microfiche: no dusty smells or fragile paper, but, boy! Talk about an excellent way to stumble upon fascinating info that may (or may not) be totally unrelated to your research! Once I start scrolling around an old newspaper issue, for example, it's hard to stop myself from reading all the even remotely interesting stories located near the story I went in to find...

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I know I read Phyllis Wheatly

in the book I have, "Half-Red Sea."  I envy you.  I'd be perspiring while reading the real letters and notes.

I bought a used copy of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," a nice hardback copy.  On the end paper, the previous owner had written a summary of what he learned from the book, and it was really moving to read the handwriting.

I've downloaded Emily Dickinson's letters from online websites.  The copies seem quite the original if you are not looking too close.

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you're right!

Wheatley appears in two of the poems in my book (and haunts all the rest, really).  Dickinson flits through at least one of my poems, as well.  I've been meaning to visit her home in Amherst, while I'm in MA, but haven't managed that yet.  Can you give me the links to a couple of good websites for the facsimiles of her letters, Belle?  That might inspire me...  : )

I've also meant to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (always misremembered that title as "Rise and Fall") forever, simply because characters in the Victorian novels I love were always referencing it.  Is the text itself as compelling as the marginalia in your copy??

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I had spent my entire teen age afternoons in library founded by 'Mahatma Gandhi'in Ahmedabad, my birthplace .I have read many things that I didn't understand at that time. But I felt connected with the author's mind by words.I still remember that smell of countless yellow paged old books.Actually I knew about world literature by those frequent rides on my 'Atlas bicycle' to that library.later I got admission to my Indian medicine degree course of 6 years, which was in native language. What I know of reading and writing in English today is only because of my prudent teachers of primary education and my love of reading any thing printed,in my early life.

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isn't it amazing . . .

. . . how we can come to some books before we're quite ready for them, and still manage to get what we need from the writing -- often the seeds of ideas that will sprout and bloom many years later?!  Libraries are quite the haven for those of us whose minds, when we were younger, were maturing faster than we could really process.  The library, and the books there, constituted a safe place in which to stretch one's wings, without a fear of falling . . .

I wish I could really read comfortably in a second language like you, Jitu.  I can get around a bit in French, but I am so rusty at it now that it's not terribly enjoyable.