Works and Days

Research: Pictures Big and Small, President's Summer Fellowship Final Reflection, John Young

There is something deeply rewarding about setting up a plan and then executing it. Thought the “heist” metaphor was perhaps a stretch, and though I would never want to implicate myself or my colleagues in “theft” (--though, my brief walk through the British Museum suggested to me that historians, archeologists, and anthropologists have perhaps done their fare share of that, under different names--), finding what I was looking for where I looked for it was a satisfying experience.

What was I looking for? And what did I find? I was looking for the correspondence of Robert Swinhoe relating to Natural History. His “day job” as it were was as a diplomat in the British Foreign Service, and he produced volumes of material related to his work in the consulate. I wasn’t incredibly interested in all of that work, however, and I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I would find in his diplomatic writings with respect to his natural historical work. I did manage to locate all of his archived diplomatic writing. The day after arriving in London I went to the National Archives and spent the morning and afternoon browsing microfilmed catalogues of Foreign Service Office material, looking for things that Swinhoe produced. I spent the whole of Saturday and Sunday at the National Archives—it was the only one open over the weekend.

I had planned to do the archival work here over my first weekend because, although of lesser importance to my overall research interests, it would give me the opportunity to “practice” doing the work of a historical researcher.

And practice I did. It was exhausting. I braked for lunch to eat the canned beans that I had bought that morning at a Tesco (imagine, my fellow Americans, a grocery store the size of a gas station) but otherwise spent the day in front of the mircro-film machines.

Before computers, long before, in fact, people effectively organized vast sums of paper through the use of so-called “paper technologies.” The card catalog at your childhood library was one such technology. The joke goes that the British Empire floated on an ocean of paper, and I can believe it. All of this paper would have been worthless, however, without ways to find what one was looking for in the vast ocean of printed material. The problem is easily imaginable for us “mille nails” (whatever that term even means…): pretend that the internet exists, but that search engines do not. All of the information in the world could be, I suppose, at your finger tips, but because you can’t search it in a logical and rational way it, that is, the wealth of material at your fingertips, might as well not even exist. You wouldn’t even know it’s there. And if you did, how would you find it?

People solved this and other problems through the use of paper technologies. At least one historian I’ve come across has even argued that such technologies represented forms of proto-computing.

So—I spent my days navigating and working with a selection of these paper technologies; all manner of catalogues, indexes, indexes to indexes, and yes, indexes to indexes to indexes. Which, you might have guessed, is where the real leg-work came into play. I would hunt through an index, which would lead me to another index, which I then had to go find, in a drawer, in some other place in the archives, which would lead me to, you guessed it, another index. If the footnote truly is one of the greatest inventions of the Modern scholar, then the hyperlink is perhaps the greatest post-modern one.

It was good practice, and served me well as I went on to do my work at the archives of the British Museum of Natural History, where I tracked down Swinhoe’s correspondence with the zookeeper there, records of all of the specimens that he submitted (thousands and thousands), and took photographs of several of the extant Swinhoe specimens—in the flesh—still stored by the museum for research purposes.

Though I located most of Swinhoe’s diplomatic work, I didn’t collect it. Part of research, I think, is having clear priorities in the face of limited time. Collecting all of the diplomatic materials would have taken weeks and weeks, and there may not have even been material related to natural history among them. But the practice was good, and I took the lessons I learned at the National Archives over the weekend with me to the Natural History museum during the weekdays for my work there, examining and collecting his correspondence and specimens there.

But zooming out, stepping back, taking a more global view, what did I learn? What did I learn about myself, my career interests, my life-goals? I learned plenty about research, and plenty about a Victorian diplomat-naturalist, but what’s my moral to the story?

Well, I’m a little chagrined. I spent my weeks in London, and my months back in Portland working with the materials that I had collected and secondary scholarly research, becoming increasingly, horrifyingly, and embarrassingly aware that I absolutely did not want to pursue history professionally—at least, not at this time, and certainly not in that job market. Why? Well, that is, perhaps, a story for another time and another place, over a beer and in person.

Prospective lawyers, I’m told, are encouraged to intern at a law firm and to take a cold hard look before leaping. The Presidential Summer Fellowship provided me with an opportunity to look, to work on an independent academic research project with a faculty adviser, to go and work abroad, to, I suppose, really do some of the work of a historian in ways that the senior thesis project would not allow for. (My interests were in computer spatial cartography. The history thesis, on the other hand, is almost exclusively focused on producing a monograph, not a map).

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