As our fellow ELE members met with the grant administrators for IMLS, Katharine, Celia, and I spent our morning at the National Museum of American History Archives Center. With just a couple of hours to conduct research before rushing off to a joint meeting with the American Enterprise exhibit team, we gambled by devoting our energies to reviewing an uncatalogued collection from the National Cotton Council. Fortunately, luck was on our side. In the very first box we opened, we located just what we were looking for: a detailed photographic record of an upstate South Carolina textile mill during the postwar period. This frenzied trip taught us a few helpful hints for optimizing our time in the archives:
1) Come prepared. Like many archival institutions, the Smithsonian requires researchers to make an appointment in advance and send a list of requested materials. In preparing for our visit, we searched for potentially useful documents using the online SIRIS catalog (http://www.siris.si.edu/). Knowing exactly what we wanted to research saved us time and hassle once we arrived on site.
2) Expect everything to take longer than you think. After we arrived, we discovered that the archivist Katharine had contacted to make our appointment was off duty that day, so we needed to resubmit our request for materials. Along with watching a brief introductory video, placing our belongings in lockers, and getting situated in the research room, set up took more time than we anticipated.
3) The more the merrier. One reason why our trip was a success was that the three of us coordinated our efforts. By working as a team in scanning the materials, we were much more efficient than researching solo.
4) Every minute counts. Ultimately, we only spent an hour and a half in the archives. During our brief stint, we were able to find a trove of visually appealing images for our website. Luck certainly played a part, but it goes to show that even small research trips can make a big impact.
Sarah Scripps, 21 December 2011