Last year, I was able to do my first archive visit. I traveled to New York the first week of September to delve into the Hallie Flanagan Papers held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Archive research is an amazing thing, and I wanted to share my experience.
My first day to use the archive I was practically vibrating with eagerness. I showed up to the NYPL in Lincoln Center at 9am ready to research. Guess what? That branch doesn’t open until noon. After getting over my initial disappointment, I realized that I had a huge problem. I was going to lose nine hours of research time.
One of the difficulties of getting a PhD in southeast Louisiana is that if you need to do ANY kind of archive work, it’s going to cost you. For me, my archives were in New York Washington, DC. This means no taking a day to dig deep into a single box, take my time, ponder a letter’s significance to my research. No – I had three days in NY, five in DC, to get as much material as I could because this was my one shot. So, 27 hours with the Hallie Flanagan papers was just cut to 18 hours and I was panicking. Take into account that part of my first day was devoted to registering, figuring out how to request materials, and what the rules were for the material, and I didn’t open my first box until 2:45 PM on the first day.
The Hallie Flanagan papers were wonderful and frustrating. I was hoping that I would be able to search for the specific play I am writing about, but that was not going to happen.There were a possible 32 boxes I had to go through of Flanagan’s person papers, hoping for anything to do with It Can’t Happen Here. Added to the fact that I could only have one box at a time, and only have one folder open at a time, I could only do one thing: make the archive portable. I took pictures of EVERYTHING even remotely related to my dissertation. Without the ability to see it all at once to compare and draw connections while at the archive, and without the means to come back, I brought what I could back home Louisiana. I have so many PDF’s of documents in my cloud that I could recreate most the archive in my home office.
Taking the archive with me, however, did allow me the freedom to be in awe of some of the things I found. Doodles by Gordon Craig, thank you notes on hotel stationary written by Ernst Toller, a garden party invitation signed by ELEANOR ROOSEVELT! I was most moved by a folder full of letters written by graduate students to Flanagan, asking blessings/guidance on their thesis projects concerning the Federal Theatre Project. I did it – I cried in the archive. Flanagan had saved the letters, and copies of her responses. She was so happy that people still found it important, that her work was not forgotten. I felt like I was reaching back through time to touch her, to learn from her. I was able to hide my face (because I can only ugly cry) until I composed myself.
If someone had told me, 15 years ago, that I would be crying in a library over letters written by students to some woman who used to work for Roosevelt I would not have believed it (even though I cry a lot). But it happened. The archive touched me. Now I just need to make it touch someone else.