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?