Finding What to Look For (by William Cowell)
In my limited experience, nothing quite prepares you for just how vast the archive is. I remember precisely the moment last summer during my stage of pre-research for my thesis when I first realized that; I had already booked my trip to London, created a reader account with the British Library, and had the intellectual go-ahead of a couple faculty members who had said the British Library was my bet best for finding relevant materials for my work. Every time I tried to search the catalogue, though, there wasn’t anything interesting. Nothing I’d found cited in other scholars’ books came up in library searches; no records, no manuscripts, nothing useful or that I couldn’t find in UM’s graduate library. After some digging I realized I’d been searching the BL’s public catalogue and what I needed was the archival catalogue, something that admittedly should have been obvious but that opened up my mind to just how much material there actually was. Instead of a handful of empty search results, I was looking at hundreds of years of official records, personal diaries and correspondences, and only a little bit of time to sift through it all.
That was an eye-opening moment for me, in part because I’d learned a valuable lesson on how not to embarrass myself in front of archivists when I actually got to London, and in part because that was my first experience where I had a surplus of sources that I hadn’t quite expected. It was a similar feeling to the one that’s been steadily creeping up on me over these first two weeks in the Bentley, as I’ve come to grips with the fact that there are simply too many letters from too many people to fit into eight weeks of work. Part of being a good historian, I’ve come to learn, is deciding what to look for and where to look for it ahead of time. There’s always more material in the archive than you think there is, and if you dive in without a plan it’s easy to get swamped by the sheer volume and miss something valuable entirely.