People usually remember their first few weeks as a freshman in college—weeks filled with anxiety, timidity, and insecurity. I remember exactly what it “felt” like to be a freshman. I thought, “Wow, I do not know as nearly as much as I thought I knew.”
These feelings left gradually and before I knew it, a professor asked me to speak to her freshman class about various on-campus organizations. After the class ended, a wide-eyed student approached me and asked, “What does it feel like to be a senior in college?” I thought for a few moments and then responded, “Actually, I still feel like a freshman.”
Now that I have nearly completed my first semester of graduate study, I can honestly report that I still feel like a freshman. Well, let me clarify: the moments of anxiety, timidity, and insecurity pass less frequently than they once did. I have gained confidence in my abilities, and I now confront challenges instead of shying away from them.
But as I reflect upon the archival research project that I have completed, I am aware of one main thing: there is so much that I do not know. Actually, there is so much that we do not know, so much history has been forgotten over the years. And once you start digging, you realize that you do not know half of what you think you know.
When I was given the task to recover archival documents that reveal historically marginalized, minority voices, I immediately knew that I wanted to return to my hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana. Because my seminar class was reading from the perspectives of enslaved individuals (Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley) as well as slave owners (Cotton Mather), I began to wonder whether there was evidence of slavery in my hometown.
I discovered the earliest Calcasieu Parish conveyance book on record (1840) at Levingston Land Title Company. It’s pages do indeed reveal frequent slave sale activity. I then set out on an archival research investigation to compose a historical narrative based around this conveyance book. Here are some of the things that I learned along the way:
1) The Archives are like Freshman Composition.
In the archives, there is so much to learn and so little time to learn it. You are expected to read, write, and understand so much in such a short period of time. You scribble quickly, but it is certain that you will transpose letters and numbers, which will create the need to go back and “edit” your work.
As you study, the weight of the information you are digesting will begin to sink in. When this occurs, you may begin to feel inadequate and think that you will never measure up to those whom you study. This is when the archives will teach you an important lesson: what you compose matters, because what you write today may become history tomorrow.
2) The Archivist is like your Best Friend.
The archivist is always a phone call away, and they are always really excited when you call. They want you to come over so that you both can chat about all the information you missed since your last conversation. I should mention that archivists are the kinds of best friends who do not tolerate a quick “catch up”—be prepared to stay awhile.
Your best friend may look over your shoulder from time to time, but it’s more of a compliment than an inconvenience. The archivist is rooting for you. He or she will get excited when you get excited, and he or she will do anything to make sure that you find what you are looking for. One thing is certain: you two will never forget each other.
3) We Will Always be like Freshman.
Here’s the main lesson to be learned in the archives: we will never know it all. There is so much history left to uncover, and every written archival document must be treated differently. Assumptions have no place in the archives. If you go in to an archive assuming that you know what you will find, then you are already missing half of the story.
Behind the canonical literary texts we study, there is a multitude of stories that we are missing. And we will never discover them until we head into the archives. It may be difficult for scholars to make this move because it will require them to abandon everything they think they know and start anew…as freshman.
This may sound like a bad thing, but it really isn’t. Just as people have embarrassing memories of freshman year, they likely also remember the first time they encountered a subject they had never heard of before and it changed their lives forever. So, channel your inner freshman, and go hit the archives!