Day 124: Baby’s First Archive Dive

Every archive has its own set of protocols and procedures, and their range of difference is part of what makes the research process so time-consuming.  Some publish their finding aids, while others do not; some require an account for use of their online request system, while others require a snail-mail application; some allow laptops and cameras, while others prohibit them…etc.  And because they all enforce their regulations to protect both fragile materials and copyright holders, newbie researchers such as myself find the whole business a little stressful.

Thus, I was feeling triumphant after having successfully navigated UCLA’s online request system for its special collections, making my way to campus, and arriving in the basement of its research library (accompanied by a dear colleague–we decided to team up for our first research trip).  I was there to peruse the 6 boxes of RKO Pictures studio records pertaining to Swing Time (1936), hoping to glean something about the production context of Fred Astaire’s famous blackface number, “Bojangles of Harlem.”

A publicity still for the "Bojangles" number I found circulating on the Internet (in place of one of my own neat archive photos, protected by copyright and thus withheld from this post)

A publicity still for the “Bojangles” number I found circulating on the Internet (in place of one of my own neat archive photos, protected by copyright and thus withheld from this post)

And while I did manage to request the right series + box alphanumeric combinations and follow all the rules (I’m not allowed to post any of the photos I took on this blog, for example), I also found just about nothing of use for my dissertation in those 6 boxes.  Sure, I now know exactly how much Fred and Ginger were each paid for the film (spoiler alert: she made far less), and saw proof that Astaire the perfectionist did indeed rehearse from 9:30am ’til midnight on more than one occasion, but not even the scores for the Bojangles number offered up any useful margin notes.

It’s a strange kind of excitement to handle a handwritten note that appears to be from Mr. Austerlitz himself, or the original score for “The Way You Look Tonight,” only to realize that there’s nothing you can really do with such gems.  This is just the trouble with research visits; you’re certainly likely to discover interesting bits of historical paraphernalia during your pilgrimage, but it’s a harsh truth that very little of it is going to be directly useful for your particular project.  I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles at the moment so I didn’t waste too many resources on this, my first real trip to the archives, but I can only imagine the level of frustration that must meet those who travel long distances in pursuit of their own diamonds in the rough.  I’m also glad that I used my first research jaunt to excavate the production context of a film not absolutely central to my project (while it’s highly topical, it’s of an earlier era than the core objects of my study), but I suspect that future failures to find useful information will prove increasingly demoralizing.

Perhaps a good strategy going forward is to vary the types of work I do, even on research trips–maybe pepper in some secondary reading or visual analysis to make up for the feeling of failure that ensues when I come out of a 6-hour archive dive empty-handed.  This way I’ll avoid too much moping-induced lack of productivity…I hope?  Anyone have additional tips for coping with post-archive blues?

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