Archival Adventure

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By Julie Haefner

After two years as a PhD student it was finally time for me to embark on my first research trip to an archive. A few weeks ago, I described my on-going dissertation project on the United States’ foreign policy towards Angola during the Ford administration on the [Re]collection blog. In this post I would like to share my experience at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan (pictured above). 

This was my very first time conducting archival research. Luckily, I had a taken a class called archival administration here at CMU a few semesters ago, so I was well prepared. This class taught me a lot concerning how archives are organized, maintained, and what challenges their operators face. Before I embarked on my research stay I did quite a bit of research on which collections I wanted to investigate in the archive. Thankfully the Gerald Ford Library publishes their finding aids online. Findings aids describe the inventory, scope, and structure of a particular collection. With the help of these findings aids I determined which collections would be the most helpful for me. 

On Monday morning, after experiencing some rush-hour traffic around Ann Arbor (as a German who grew up with public transportation, this was slightly terrifying), I arrived at the archive. I first had to sign in and received a temporary researcher badge. One of the archivists greeted me and explained the research rules and procedures. Archival sites want to ensure that future historians can continue to use the records which is why archives have a number of rules on how to handle their documents. These include: no drinks or food in the room (understandably so they don’t want coffee stains on the documents), no pens (imagine an ink spill!), no backpacks or purses. Laptops, cell phones, and tablets were allowed in the Ford Library. Archives do differ in their rules and regulation regarding these items. 

After signing several documents, and receiving my researcher card, I was finally allowed to go into the reading room. Archives are not like libraries where you can just wander around the shelves and pull whatever you like. Only staff members are allowed to pull the boxes with the documents – I had to fill out a slip of paper to have certain collections and boxes pulled. 

Once I received the boxes, I began sifting through them. There are also several rules that had to be followed when going through the boxes with the folders. These include but are not limited to:  one folder at a time, maintaining the order of the folders, no writing on the documents, bending them, or removing staples. Researchers have different ways of recording their finds. I opted to take pictures and jot down some quick notes. One of the most important things for me was to make sure that I knew exactly where a particular document was from. I really wanted to avoid having to return to the archive to look for the correct bibliographical information. 

To make the most of my time, I prioritized certain collections. In addition, one of the archivists recommended a collection that I did not have on my radar at all. This collection proved to be a gold mine. It had been compiled by the investigative journalist Dale van Atta. I was amazed by the amount of intelligence documents he had somehow acquired. Granted, at times there were large parts of the documents that had been redacted for national security reasons. But I still found a lot of information in his collection. All of my previous research experience had been with digitized documents. There were several moments when I held a document and thought: “Wow, this document was signed by Gerald Ford or Brent Scowcroft or Henry Kissinger!” Holding these documents made them come more alive than they ever did on my computer screen.

While I really enjoyed my time in the archive, there were two things that were frustrating to me. First, I found dozens of documents that had been partly or entirely redacted. Obviously, this is due to the somewhat sensitive nature of my research topic. Seeing the pink slip that indicated that the document had been pulled because of national security reasons was sometimes disheartening. I did encounter several documents that could potentially be de-classified, but the review process (as one the archivists told me) would take years. The other thing that was frustrating was going through dozens of folders and boxes without finding anything of substance. At times it seemed like I was wasting my time, but I still kept going. You never knew, after all, what was in the next folder. On a lighter note, as an avid Michigan State Spartan fan (I went there for a year), being surrounded by all the University of Michigan colors and buildings was different. 

After my return to Mount Pleasant, I am now busy cataloging all my pictures, and actually properly reading through them. I fully expect to go back to the archive at least one more time. Overall, I learned a lot during my week at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, not only about my particular topic, but also about doing research in an archive. It has also taught me to appreciate archives and archivists even more. As historians we depend so much on them, and without them our work would be a lot more difficult, or even impossible.