The basic concept of research is pretty simple, and doesn’t require a long explanation – you go to where the information you need is stored, you retrieve it, and you do something useful with it.  Of course, the whole point of me writing in this space for the next three months is to show how this simple process can be a lot more complicated.  Even so, the idea isn’t that complex, and I think most people can understand what I’ll be doing.

Now, what I’ve been doing for the past three months is a lot harder to explain, but just as important to the final product.  There’s the easy stuff – making a budget, finding accommodations in Germany, airfare, figuring out transportation, all of which I know people understand.  Then there’s the research-related stuff like writing to archives (thankfully, nowadays via email) to let them know I’m coming.  Not that complicated – except for the part about writing in German, and feeling like it should be really good German.  So that takes time. Archivists also appreciate it when researchers can demonstrate that they know something about the archive contents, so that means looking at whatever online catalogs and finding aids are available.

An aside about finding aids: I respect archivists for a lot of things, but the creation and maintenance of finding aids – lists of folders/documents and their brief descriptions – are about the most impressive thing about the whole process. The amount of work involved to do this tends to temper my exasperation at finding that an important lot of files hasn’t been processed.  Last time I was at the US National Archives, I was talking with one of the archivists about the Displaced Persons Commission, and he gave me an incomplete finding aid that another archivist had been working on before she left the Archives – nobody else on staff really wanted to redo the work she had already put into this document, even though it was in no state for public use (a lot of these finding aids are published, or at least printed and made available by the archive to researchers).

If you’re really lucky, some of these will be online.  Now, for my first major archive, the Berlin State Archive (Landesarchiv Berlin), there are five major periodic classifications (Pre-1945, West Berlin, East Berlin, Berlin after 1989, and Personal Collections) and a whole list of individual file series within those categories.  Each government department (Finance, Health, Transportation, etc.) has their own series, and government related institutions – police and courts, schools, hospitals – are also represented.  At the LAB, most of these series have finding aids, but only a few have been put online (for good reason, the finding aid for the department of building and housing affairs alone runs 218 pages).

I really like it when these are put online, because then it’s a lot easier to run searches on terms I want to research rather than reading through what is, essentially, a really long list of files.  For example, within that 218-page finding aid for the department of building and housing affairs (SBW), I found 6 file references that will likely be really useful for my research (really useful meaning that they’ll account for maybe a sentence or two of the completed dissertation).  Now I can request that the archive pull those specific file folders, at which point I can go through them.

Even the series without online finding aids aren’t that bad – I’ll just have to read through them when I get to the archive (probably while I’m waiting to have those earlier files delivered. I’m really worried, though, about a couple series that haven’t even been indexed yet.  This includes the main set of files that I’m traveling to Berlin to view, those on the refugee reception center at Marienfelde.  This is something I’m not looking forward to – based on shelf space occupied and and number of boxes, if there were a finding aid for this series, it would be about 150 pages long.  To be honest, I’m hoping that most of that is pretty useless (financial reports, receipts and the like) and that I’ll be able to sort out the really good stuff quickly.

Now, multiply that process by 4 or 5 archives, and you’ll see one major use of my time.  That doesn’t even get at all of the writing I’ve been doing, but I’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

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Hello World!

24 August 2009

I don’t leave for another week, but this is where you can keep up with what I’m doing. Tomorrow I’ll do a post on what I’ve been doing to prepare for my research trip (more than just booking flights and finding apartments…).