So Many Boxes, So Little Time: Planning a Visit to the Archive

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.


The Pitfalls of a Keyword Search

The ability to search by keyword through terabytes of files may at first seem like a helpful shortcut to cutdown on time spent rifling through unrelated sources, but as Ian Milligan argues, we cannot simply “outsource our intellectual labor to a search engine like Google.”* Instead, as historians, we must equip ourselves for the age of digital research by increasing our data fluency and understanding the pitfalls of abundance.

One of the main concerns to methodology in the digital age is the threat of losing the evidential value that defines the traditional archive. Evidential value is the organization of archival materials so that researchers understand the context of the sources. Archivists work to establish as close to the organic whole for each collection and organize it in such a way to maintain the historical context. A keyword search has the potential to isolate a source from its place in a collection and remove the original context completely.

As we¬† lose our “paper trails” maintaining the context will become an even greater responsibility for the historian. That being said, context is not impossible to retain within in a digital archive, but it will require historians to think about context more carefully as they sort through digital sources.

Another concern is that the traditional questions we apply to archives – who created this archive, where did the material come from, what has been removed or is missing – may be harder to ascertain unless we learn an appropriate level of data fluency. Historians need to actively think about how data (and metadata) operates, how digital files are stored and retrieved, and “humans’ role at all stages” of the creation and use of data management.*

While some skills in a historian’s toolbelt will come in handy in a new age of digital archival research, for new methodological obstacles we may currently be ill-equipped or ill-prepared to do our research responsibly.


** Ian Milligan, “Historians’ achival research looks quite different in the digital age,” The Conversation, August 19, 2019.