The archive used to intimidate me. Thankfully, after a few weeks in my Archives & Manuscripts graduate course, I feel more prepared to plan my first visit to an archive for my dissertation research.
In two weeks, I am visiting the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland to look at their Children’s Television Workshop collection. I started planning my visit by looking through the collection’s online finding aid. The entire collection contains 14 series that amount to 456 linear feet of material. The volume was initially overwhelming, but I know I’ll be making several return trips. For this visit, I narrowed down my search to the series specifcally focused on Sesame Street (which totals 30 linear feet).
Having never conducted research in an archive, it is difficult to know how many boxes to request or what material to start with. My hoarder tendencies want to see as much as possible, but I know I need a more realistic approach.
To find a starting point, I browsed the boxes within the four sub-series: Planning and Production, Promotion, Viewer Mail, and Ancillary Materials. I scanned each box for folders that either caught my attention or surprised me. One box contained over twenty folders labeled “Anti-Abortion Mail”. I have yet to read anything about the issue of abortion in relation to Sesame Street; I was hooked. Other boxes contained folders on playgrounds, Sesame Street magazine, and folder after folder of viewer criticisms, praise, and letters from parents and kids. I ended up with a list of eight boxes that picqued my interest.
Before putting in a request, I reached out to the archivst to let them know when I was planning on visiting and to give them a broad overview of what I was interested in looking at. One of the archivsts wrote back and said the viewer mail is some of the most interesting content in the collection and it was a great place to start.
After an hour or two of work, I was surprised at how learning basic skills like navigating finding aids and understanding an archive’s structure, made the entire endeavor seem more inviting and doable. Hopefully that feeling continues when I step into the archive to begin my research.