You have to be There to Believe It: History Comes Alive

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

The Beinecke’s Gutenberg Bible

by David Banas

Spring Break. That semi-magical time full of the hope of freedom for undergraduates and the false hope of it for graduate students who will invariably be writing term papers or, perhaps even worse, grading term papers. While there is an emphasis on working over Spring Break, especially in graduate circles, there is still nonetheless time during most of our Spring breaks to do something relaxing or exhilarating. The latter came for me on a surprise, last minute trip to Connecticut and New York where I was confronted face-to-face with the idea of history coming to life. Most time when one tosses the phrase “history comes alive” around in the CMU History Department, it generally refers to the methodology of game-based learning. However, there is another, older, and perhaps more established way in which history has been made accessible to generations of the public and historians alike over the past two and a half centuries: museums.

On my trip I visited two such institutions. In addition to the rich primary sources that the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library offers, it presents something even more valuable to the public (or even the historian not studying Medieval and Early Modern history): an enormous glass display filled with examples of their rare collections, visible for every visitor. In addition to the large display of the collection, the Beinecke has several individual display cases with invaluable books scattered around the library. What struck me the most was the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five in the United States and of twenty-one remaining in existence. I was instantly drawn back to my undergraduate years when Dr. Rutherford had repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Gutenberg Bible to the point of making it an ID term on his Renaissance history final exam. And here I was, face-to-face with the oldest, western, printed book in history. In that moment, I forgot all the greater surrounding details that Dr. Rutherford had sought to impress upon my memory and instead was enraptured by the beauty and majesty of this work and the book’s heavy Fraktur font. For me, history came alive as I experienced not only the object in its larger historical context but also its sheer beauty.

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

Dürer’s Portrait of Erasmus

After being hauled around for nearly an hour and a half around a semi-frigid New York City by my girlfriend and her friend who were hell-bent on seeing all of New York in a day, we finally arrived at the end of Central Park with a rather large and imposing stone building in front of us: the MET. The MET—officially known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art—has several interesting exhibitions of which we visited the Byzantine and Medieval art collections (because my girlfriend said so). The collection that stood out to me was “Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance,” which, as the title suggests, focused on pieces created by such master craftsmen as Adriaen de Vries, Hans Daucher, and Albrecht Dürer. Despite all the previous sections of beautiful art, this section—Dürer’s works in particular—held my profound interest. On all of his works—just like the Renaissance textbook I had read when I was a baby-faced freshman had claimed—was Dürer’s famous signature of a large, block capital ‘A’ straddling a smaller, capital ‘D’. I was again confronted with history truly coming to life. Having a historian in a rather dry and boring textbook explain to you how Dürer signed all of his works does not compare to not only the sensation of being a mere few inches away from something so old and important but also the thrill of the opportunity of trying to find his signature on every one of his works in the Met’s exhibition. Describing an item or painting is one thing. Actually seeing and experiencing the beauty of it in person is quite another.

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

Maso Finiguerra's "Hercules and Antaeus"

When people complain about history being boring and merely a collection of dates, I point to experiences such as the ones the Beinecke and the MET afforded me to make history truly come to life. Closer to home, the Clarke Historical Library provides students and the local Mount Pleasant community with the same kind of experience that the MET and the Beinecke gave me over Spring Break. The Clarke’s most recent Hemingway exhibition is on the same magnitude as the Met’s and Beinecke’s collections in that Ernest Hemingway as a person truly comes to life, especially while reading such works as the Gamble letter, a letter to Hemingway’s friend and commander during the First World War. One can feel the true character of the man, seeing the beauty of his handwriting, or some of his choice phrasing (the “fleshpots of Charlevoix” readily comes to mind).

In an age in which history and the humanities face budgetary cuts and restrictions, museums and historical libraries offer us a glimpse as to why we deemed history important in the first place. They can also show the public the beauty and importance of historical artifacts and give visual aids for many generations to enjoy. By writing the history of museum pieces such as Hemingway’s letters or the Gutenberg Bible we as historians can do our part to make history come to life.

Confusion in (and around) the Archive

British Library

British Library

Last week, the CMU History blog went on a short hiatus. The reason was my journey to London, where research in the British Library and the National Archive in Kew waited for me. This second part of our double feature on archival research is a loose collection of experiences in and around the archive.

 

Sad Catalogues, or: A Thief in the Night?

Microfilm could be such a great resource. It can contain a rather large amount of copied source material, doesn’t take up much space, and exudes a certain flair of actual research that reading sources on a computer thousands of miles from any archive just doesn’t have. Microfilm also must be catalogued carefully, ordered, and put into neat boxes for future examination. The downside is, however, that anyone who might want to use microfilm has to look at a lot of material before that hoped-for slide might come up.

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

In my case, nothing came up. While looking for an early 18th century London newspaper, I thought I had finally found the issue in question, when it dawned on me that the actual page was missing. The curator who had created the microfilm had surely been aware of that, since he or she had left a neat space in-between the other pages. Perhaps they had hoped that the page would be found one day, and subsequently added to the film. That day seems very far away, however. Since the librarians of the British Library are helpful and very nice, we spent at least an hour going through the catalogue and two separate backup collections to find the missing page. In the end, the librarian had to politely admit that the catalogue had perhaps been a bit boastful in announcing that the British Library held the most important, complete collection of early English newspapers. On top of that, while doing some further research online, the creeping suspicion came over me that the newspaper’s originals were actually held by the Library of Congress all across the ocean where I had initially come from for the purpose of finding those very originals! Now, I don’t know why anyone would take a whole host of early 18th century newspapers and smuggle them over the ocean to the new world, but if that person could please step forward and hand over that missing page, I would be very grateful.

Of course, as we all know, if I went to Washington and found that page, all it would tell me would be things I already knew from other newspaper entries. That’s how 18th century sources always are, you just can’t trust them.

 

An Insistent Donor?

If you are lucky enough to find yourself at a library or archive with an attached museum or exhibition, take the time to rest your brain (and eyes) a little and take a stroll. Often you might see or hear things that can make your day much better.

Shortly after quietly cursing the widespread crime of newspaper theft, I ventured into the heart of the British Library for a nice visit to the Magna Carta. Sadly, the museum didn’t have it on display at that time (and I must be honest in saying that I completely forgot to ask why), but there was a very chipper tour guide who gladly told the interested visitors about another, recently discovered Magna Carta. Apparently, some (very rich) guy had found a box in the attic of his newly acquired (ancient) house (well, palace). He had taken its contents, among them a massive scroll, to the local public library of the town of Sandwich, where the astonished librarians realized that the scroll was in fact a 1217 version of the Magna Carta. According to the British Library guide, the librarians told the lucky finder that he could offer the scroll to the British Library, which would give him 20 million pounds for it. He could also, however, give it to a private collector from America or China, who would surely give him over 100 million pounds! The owner of the scroll, shaking his head, declined both suggestions and simply gave the Magna Carta to the public library – for free. What a man!

The story remained in my head for a couple of days, before I decided to do some more research on it. Strangely, the only article I could find about a newly found Magna Carta in Sandwich dated from 2015 and described how a 1300 version was found in the archive… Which only goes to show that you can’t trust museum guides either.

 

123 Years of Adwa

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

While daydreaming about finding my own treasure worth 100 million pounds, I ventured out into the courtyard of the library for some air, when I was suddenly confronted with a rather large group of people dressed in white and waving Ethiopian flags. Singing and dancing, they made their way towards the library. I decided to walk with them, because I had just researched the Ethiopian-German relationship in the First World War, and out of sheer curiosity. Inside the building, the group visited the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition, where they gathered around the priceless Ethiopic Bible, the 17th century Octateuch of Gondar. Feeling as if I should know why they celebrated this day, I still had to ask one of the Ethiopian celebrants about the significance of their visit. Beaming, he told me that Ethiopia had never been colonized, and that it had decisively defeated the Italian invasion at Adwa, on March 1st, 1896. Of course, it wasn’t such a coincidence – after all, the day is celebrated all over the world by people of the Ethiopian Diaspora – but I felt as if my struggle in the archive for this day was somehow vindicated. 123 years of Adwa matter, as a sign for the struggle of people all across the world against colonialism, and as a symbol that this struggle hasn’t yet ended.

Reminded of the ongoing validity of historical research, the need to comb through every attic in search for new documents, and the connections between historical study and living commemoration, I went back into the bowels of the library. I still needed to find that page, after all…

Assets and Obstacles of Researching Transnationally: Using Archives in the U.S. and in Europe

by Alessandra Magrin (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow)


Having been required to use a large number of archives in two different continents during my joint research assistantship for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (Wyoming) and PhD research at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland), I thought that talking about my experience and giving out some practical advice could be of use to some of the students in the Comparative and Transnational history program at Central Michigan (of which Strathclyde is one of the partner universities). Coming from a background in Foreign Languages and Cultural Studies, I had little previous experience with collections, foundations, or national archives (both in the U.S. and Europe) when I began this project, and—in all honesty—I would have treasured a few pragmatic tips on how to approach and what to expect from each of them. So here I am, I hope this post can help some of you avoid a total ‘research freak-out’ when you are thousands of miles away from home and from your beloved supervisors.

Let me begin by saying that participating in a big transnational research group such as the ‘Papers of W.F. Cody’–researching the life and times of Buffalo Bill Cody—was no doubt a thrilling experience, but also a challenging one. And while meeting international scholars (such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Louis Warren, Robert Rydell) was electrifying, so was getting a shock from the Microfilm machine in the National Library of Rome, alas not in the same way.

 

American Archives:

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Denver Public Library, Colorado

Regardless of the picaresque journeys to get there— long transatlantic travels with plenty of missed connections and the odd interstate bus ride with Greyhound (Laredo-Denver, I’ll never forget you)—I have to admit that my experience with American archives was, luckily, always ‘easy peasy’. As some of you might already know, research collections are carefully indexed in most major American repositories, and a thorough preliminary search will make you fairly certain that your hunt will be successful. Professional archivists working in specific collections will also provide invaluable help, so make sure to reach out to them and explain precisely what you are looking for. They might be able to show you additional material on your topic which is contained in boxes that, for whatever reason (a misleading nametag or vague description), had escaped your initial search—as it happened to me in Denver Public Library. Generally, the staff working in large archives and libraries is abundant, and the distribution of the material and the opening times are user-friendly, with some repositories operating also during the weekend. This will allow you the chance to use your time at the archive to the fullest, especially if you are on a tight schedule due to long commutes. Furthermore, an increasing number of museums and archives now have digitized copies of some of their items, which, in some instances, will remove the need to actually visit the archive—at least for some time. This brings me to a tip that will save you some trips to Europe: Major American archives (Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, Newberry Library, Huntington Library, Archives at Yale and Stanford Universities) have copies of collections and documents held in European archives. So, even if you are researching a ‘European topic’, it is worth to first take a look in US archives as they are generally rich in European collections. However, the downside is that this material has probably been studied extensively before, and, unless you approach your topic from a particularly revolutionary angle, you take the risk of not being wholly original in your study. So, if the aim of your research is to examine original or little-known documents or to uncover previously unpublished primary sources, my recommendation is to cross the pond and start rummaging in some dusty European archive!

 

European Archives:

And this is when the challenges began for me! The way archives function in Europe varies from country to country, from institution to institution, and even from whether the archive is state-funded or financed by a private foundation. The organization of British archives and libraries is the one which resembles most the American system. The British Library, the National Archives, the National Library of Scotland, and the British Film Institute archive all have professional and semi-professional staff to assist users in their search. Several holdings are available digitally to users, both on and off site (including index cards, manuscripts, and newspaper collections). Besides that, the distribution of documents is frequent, and normally very quick. On the other hand, the reproduction of material can be rather costly (printing and scanning) but taking copies with your own devices for study purposes is allowed and it is free—although check how many pages of the documents/books/stills you are allowed to copy, each archive implements different policies.

Milan State Library (Italy)

Milan State Library (Italy)

When it comes to archives in continental Europe, the rules and organization change significantly. First of all, do not expect to always find staff who understands and speaks English. Although this might be more common in archives in some central-northern European countries (the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, parts of Germany, large French archives like the BNF in Paris), it is much more infrequent in central-southern and eastern European countries. You are researching a transnational topic, so ideally you would already have some skills in the language of the country you are visiting. If you don’t, I strongly suggest getting a research assistant/fellow PhD student/friend who is a fluent speaker (or, even better, who is based in the country) to assist you during your archival visit. The best way to achieve this is to meet international students, at university, during conferences or summer schools – so make sure you polish your networking skills!

Take into account that opening times often don’t include weekends, especially in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain where everything shuts down on a Sunday, and that some archives might close as early as 5pm. Also, the distribution of material is sometimes limited to specific days and even specific times of the day (just mornings or just afternoons, or, for instance, only between 9 and 11 am and between 2pm and 4 pm), and that some material needs to be booked a few days before the day of delivery because it comes from an external warehouse (as in, for example, the antique newspapers collection of the National Library of Florence). So, a preliminary thorough check of the archive website and borrowing rules are fundamental—also to make sure you don’t get there on a national holiday or when the archive is closed for restoration (which happens often in archives held in historical buildings). It is good practice, especially in smaller archives, to preemptively announce your visit via email to the curator/archivist responsible for the specific collection you need to use. The staff will normally be able to prepare the material for you and reserve a space in the consultation room. Indeed, you will find that certain archives, despite housing generous collections, have very restricted spaces for the consultation and only accept visits via booking.

Don’t expect to find ‘cutting edge technology’ in all the repositories, especially if they are state-funded archives or libraries (which in certain European countries are notoriously underfunded, and understaffed). Internet and computer access are now generally available everywhere, but probably the Microfilm machines will be from the 1980-90s (don’t be like me and make sure you always dry your hands well before you use them, otherwise get a good life insurance). After years of lagging behind, the digitization of archival material, and especially of newspapers, is now efficient in several major European archives. However, most state-funded repositories have gargantuan collections and only a fraction of their holdings is online.

The situation is usually better in the archives of private foundations, which might have smaller holdings but are equipped with professional archivists with meticulous knowledge of their collections. In my personal experience the document retrieval process was always quick and efficient, so my advice would be to privilege this type of archive and go to state-funded archives if the items you are looking for are only held there.

So, as a rule, you do have to face a number of challenges when you decide to research in European archives. Arm yourself with a lot patience, never lose confidence in your abilities and keep persevering. Having a flexible mindset will help a great deal when you are there. Sometimes you just have to accept that certain things are beyond your control and, no matter how well organized you are, the unexpected will just happen (like when I was in Rome and my archive suddenly shut down due to the first snowstorm hitting the ‘eternal city’ in 27 years). However, I am certain that the rewards, especially for transnational scholars, outnumber the obstacles. Europe is a goldmine for historical records and the chances to come across some truly original material, or at least sources that have never before been studied by English-speaking scholarship, are extremely high. This will make a whole lot of difference in the quality of your research and, eventually, in the way your work will be received by the scholarly community.

History from the Dark Room

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by Hugo Zayas-González

Among those who in an amateur or professional way like to study the past it is well known that documents are their raw materials. Archives and historical libraries have been developing paper-based as well as digital collections, and by taking advantage of technological advances made efforts to keep them in usable conditions. Such is the case for Clarke Historical Library which launched a still ongoing program in 1967 to preserve local newspapers from Michigan communities. In this way, Clarke Library is not only striving to keep “the single most important record from which a community can be documented” usable, but also works to make this material available for a global scholarly community through its Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal. In simple words and paraphrasing a current academic expression, through this portal Clarke Library is setting Michigan local history in a global perspective.

In addition to the intellectual content found within the newspapers, there are technical reasons for preserving them. A definition of preservation says that it is “the protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content.”[1] Therefore, the primary goal of preservation has to do with prolonging the existence of cultural property through two types of activities. On the one hand, there are those activities aimed at preventing damage to paper-based collections by storing them in proper buildings with suitable humidity and temperature conditions, and designing a disaster plan. On the other hand, treatment, replacement, and reformatting are the proper activities that address existing damage. In the case of Clarke Library’s newspaper project, it is mostly focused on protection through reformatting both its own and other publishers’ collections. However, Clarke Library’s project focuses not only on damaged or historical newspapers. It is remarkable that through its continuing program they are microfilming contemporary issues as well. At this moment, for instance, they are filming last year’s issues of the Clarkston News, the Cheboygan Tribune, and the Gaylord Herald Times among other titles.

Newspapers from the nineteenth century onward are printed on inexpensive, machine-made, wood pulp paper that was not manufactured for longevity, which makes it necessary to protect newspaper collections through microfilming and digitizing projects. Even though we are living in an increasingly digital world, digitization and digital preservation do not make traditional preservation methods unnecessary. Digitization is simply another option in the preservation toolkit, especially since preserving digital objects long term still presents inherent difficulties. Although microfilming has now become the least user-friendly medium for access to newspaper collections, this technique of preservation provides a master copy from which relatively inexpensive duplicates can be easily made. Furthermore, unlike digital media which requires computer access, microfilm can be read by the naked eye with only a light source and magnification. Digitization consists of making digital copies of non-digital objects, and one of the main disadvantages concerns the continuing change in technology (software and hardware) which affects the user’s expectations.

Thus, the Clarke Library’s DigMich Newspapers project faces the requirements of global and digitized users but still grounds its digital copies on microfilming from the dark room…

[1] Northeast Document Conservation Center, NEDCC, “Preservation 101,” https://www.nedcc.org/preservation101/session-1/1what-is-preservation

Alexis de Tocquville’s “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” and the Clarke Historical Library’s Fall Exhibit 2018

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By Gillian Macdonald

As a PhD student in the history department you expect to be a teaching assistant for much of your time in the program.  Recently, however, the History Department at Central Michigan University has partnered with the Clarke Historical Library and the Michigan Historical Review to open up new opportunities for PhD students to embrace possible alternative careers to being a tenured professor. As the job market remains ever so thin, this opportunity is particularly helpful in offering training for careers outside of traditional tenure-track positions. 

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As one of the first PhD students to be granted this opportunity, let me take some time to describe my responsibilities at the Clarke Historical Library…my new home away from home as Frank Boles has so wonderfully called it. Simply put, arranging and creating exhibits is hard, detailed work. Anyone that thinks it is anything less than stressful (but enjoyable) up until the last minute is likely still enjoying the euphoria of finishing a project to give an accurate assessment. While exhibit curators and designers are fun people to work with, there is a lot of negotiation throughout the process. As historians we hope to see all elements of our research make it into an exhibit, but it is simply not possible to do so. That leads me to the Clarke’s Fall 2018 exhibit:  Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The idea for the exhibit itself began with United States District Court Judge Avern Cohen.

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Alexis de Tocqueville visited Michigan in the 1830s.  “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” or “Quinze jours dans le désert,” describes the journey he and Gustave de Beaumont took along the Saginaw Trail in 1831.  “We are going with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically as possible the entire scope of that vast American society which everybody talks about and nobody knows.” Enamored with the vast forest and wilderness of Michigan, he described the interior of Michigan with great admiration: “While exploring this flourishing wilderness...you feel only quiet admiration, a gentle, melancholy emotion, and a vague disgust with civilized life. With a sort of savage instinct, it pains you to think that soon this delightful solitude will have been utterly transformed.” Tocqueville’s travels in Michigan were part of a commissioned trip to the United States to examine the prison system.  However, his true aim was to explore the untapped outer limits of civilization was only made clear upon his arrival. 

Despite only being part of about half of the process for this exhibit, it is challenging nonetheless. The excruciating detail and time-consuming activities make a time crunch almost inevitable. Nonetheless, I had so much fun. Hands-on work and practical applications of history and the training that we get in the history department are put to the test not to mention an ability to create statistics about Michigan in the 1830s from scratch. This particular exhibit is marvelous (and I don’t just say that because I helped). It is the result of hard labor and a lot of fun exploring stacks and running back and forth from the printer doing last-minute labeling. Another fun perk is that the Clarke’s very own Bryan Whitledge is now on a first name basis with the Countess Stephanie de Tocqueville, so that’s pretty cool too. 

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In summary, the Clarke has one of the nicest housing spaces for exhibits that I have seen in any university library (in my limited experience). With this, they have a unique ability to showcase collections and exhibits, work with departments, be an archival library, and house a journal. You should check it out!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Archive

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

By Jennifer Vannette

We talk about archival work as if it’s always important and serious. To be fair, it mostly is. But sometimes it can be a comedy of errors. Every archive trip is different and every archive you visit has its own rules, style, and vibe.

When I was studying in the UK, I needed to use some Foreign Office papers, which are housed at the National Archives in Kew. I successfully navigated my train south to London and then the Underground out to Kew and was feeling very pleased with myself as I used my smart phone’s GPS to help me find my lodgings and then walk to the archive the next morning. I was there too early, but it was a beautiful day and the grounds were lovely so I wandered around and enjoyed myself. The doors opened, and I walked up to the desk to ask where to go. I still don’t know why they were surprised by my question, but they pointed me to the coat room. In this room, there were all sorts of helpful directions posted about using the lockers, what you could take into the reading room, and the clear bags you would need to use to carry your supplies. They also had umbrella stands, which although immensely practical for the UK, were still a fun novelty for an American. Basically, this room told me everything about using a locker -- something I have know how to do since middle school. The instructions were about to get less clear.

It took awhile to shove everything in the locker and sort out what I could take with me. Feeling a bit warm from my labors of shoving a backpack and coat into the too small locker, I nevertheless felt ready to get to work. There were signs pointing up the stairs to the reading room, so I started climbing. I came to a landing and found a billboard-sized sign emblazoned “Start Here.” So, I went up to the desk to start.

It turns out that that is not where one begins. Of course not. That would be silly. So, up one more flight of stairs I found a little room where I had to fill out more paperwork, sign more things saying I wouldn’t steal stuff (I had already done this once online), and then wait for my photo to be taken for my Researcher’s ID. Now, at this point I had walked a mile and a half to the archive, wrestled with my locker, walked up two flights of stairs and was super confused about where I was supposed to be. You can imagine how great that picture turned out.

ID in hand, I was sent back down stairs. But not as you might have guessed to the “Start Here” sign. Nope, I had to go to the other side of that floor and go through security. (I still don’t know who actually starts at the desk with the sign. It remains a mystery.) I went to hand over my bag and computer for inspection and dropped the bag; the contents spilled out. I walked through the security barrier and set off the alarm. I was sent back through twice and finally it was okay. At this point the security guards and I are having a good laugh because it was just so ridiculous. It was the start of our ongoing bit. You know, the classic “not you again!” bit. I was a hit with security.

The National Archives houses vast amounts material and hosts so many researchers that it’s no wonder they have really modernized the process. I checked in and was assigned a table at which to sit, and my table number corresponded to my locker number where they would deposit my requested materials. To request materials, I went to a computer bank and swiped my ID. That brought up my table/locker number and then any materials requested would automatically be linked to my number. It was pretty cool. When I finished with a box of materials, I took them to a return desk. The only downside is that unlike smaller archives, there was no personal attention offered by the archivists. And, unlike the security guys, they weren’t very friendly. I discovered that somewhere I lost my pencil (probably when my bag spilled) and the archivist-on-duty would not loan me one. He helpfully suggested I buy a new one at the gift shop. The souvenir pencils were £2 a piece. So helpful.

From the outside, it might look like researchers seem calm, cool, and collected, but some days it's really difficult to not feel foolish. That first day at the National Archives was one awkward moment after another. Every archive is different, so no matter how many you visit, it's just hard to predict what is going to happen. The best thing to do is roll with it and learn to laugh at yourself.