Foucault wrote on the archives and worked in them extensively. It’s true that there is something different about doing archival work. For one thing, archives vary considerably in such mundane matters as their policies and access, and more importantly how they have arranged and categorised their material. I’ve been working the last three days in the National Archives in Maryland, commonly known as Archives II. (Archives I is downtown but most research materials are actually not located there.)
Fortunately NARA (as it is known) is a fantastic resource. Being a federal institution security is very obvious. This is my fourth trip here and security has increased (I was last here in 2007 to work on the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, Record Group 256). Of course there is the ordinary security to get in the front door (x-rays, armed guards) that can seem overkill to a foreign visitor but there’s also security of the materials. Since my last visit they seem to have added floor walkers; employees who help/monitor you as you work. Here’s the procedure.
After you get your researcher card (like a driving license with your photo embedded in it) you must secure your bag, pens, outerwear (NARA reserves the right to determine if an article of clothing is outerwear” –no arguments at the guard station here that your Euro-jumper draped over your shoulders is not outwear!) and so on downstairs in the locker rooms. Then you may proceed to the guard station to enter the archives. This is all once you’ve made it into the building by the way–not always possible (a guy was turned away and there was a call in to the supervisor because he had something they wouldn’t let him bring in–not sure what it was).
There are separate doors for employees and researchers, as we’re called. NARA is “national archives and records administration” and the building is named after Steny Hoyer (D-MD). No papers or books can be taken in unless each sheet of paper is stamped and the book stamped also (on the second page or inside back cover). Don’t take library books in! For each piece of equipment you must have an equipment sheet which lists the item and its serial number. This is a pain but turns out to benefit you in that they do check these against each other as you leave and actually ask you to read off the last four digits of the serial number from the camera or whatever. This means you can leave equipment on the research floor at the desk without worrying too much about theft. A potential thief could easly nick ione of those little digital cameras but wouldn’t be able to easily get it out.
Cameras are allowed, as are tripods, and even flatbed portable scanners (no automatic feeds, even if disabled). All equipment must be checked as follows. If you are going to use a camera (I had one of those little $300 cameras which actually take good quality pictures and saves a ton on photocopying fees) you must take your materials to the main info desk on the research floor (imagine a huge room with 2-story high ceiling and one side almost completely glassed; no dungeon like dark rooms here but light and airy) and they will issue a special piece of paper which a little piece of scotch tape attached. You take this back to your desk and affix it to the arm-swing lamp over your desk. It can’t be affixed anywhere else (I had mine on the desk in plain site but not on the lamp and a floor walker told me off). You must do this every day, and you can’t use the one from the day before because the paper colors change.
If your materials were ever restricted, confidential, or secret but have been declassified you must also get a tiny piece of paper, maybe 1X3cm with a special code on it. This must be in ALL the pictures you take and I saw researchers doggedly placing it on every page before taking a pic. However, I spotted a loophole and had my piece of paper just below the file, which allowed me to turn the pages faster (the point here is to photograph everything and sort it out later. your time is limited–I had 2.5 days and you must acquire as much material as possible. This is the first rule of archival work that I learned from the great Geoffrey Martin who did biographies of Bowman and has by his own account visited 103 different archives in 25+ countries). You don’t want to have to come back and the photocopying (or now camera work) is way less expensive than hotels, air tickets and your time.
NARA is great in that they do actually allow you to take pictures/photocopies and even scanners. Yale for example doesn’t and you must request any copying to be done by staff–from which they benefit in two ways. First you have to pay them, but more importantly since they take the photo they own the copyright (even on material long since itself out of copyright). This is because you get the image and the image is copyrighted. At NARA you hold the copyright on the image, though of course you may still be responsible for copyright permissions if the material is in copyright. But here again NARA has government stuff and US government stuff is not copyrighted.
Researchers visit NARA from all over. I met or heard Koreans, Japanese, Germans, Brits, Californians and Southerners. One of the people I shared a desk with was researching Chiang kai-Shek and had looked a the records already (I think in Taiwan) and was now looking at the American version. Thius is a result of course of so much overseas adventuring by the Americans. Also tons of people come in looking for lists of people who served on so and so ship in the war. A typical example was an older couple, but I also heard a young woman asking after the same kind of material who had been sent there by her father on spec.
She was told it was better to do some homework before coming and that’s true (though if you know some basic facts like record group and what they hold that might be enough). NARA has a online record group locator, ARC, which is OK but doesn’t hold a candle to actually being there and consulting the detailed finding aids which break out the material. I was researching the precursor of the CIA known as the OSS which operated during WWII and had a special map division headed by Arthur Robinson, and who later made his name as a leading American cartographer. Robinson trained about 15 Phds at Madison who in turn trained further generation. There’s a nice “family tree” of his influence in Cartographic Perspectives about 5 years ago which has over a 100 names on it.
Not much is known about his work for the OSS, though those who know “Robbie” well know that he worked for them (I even found a newspaper clipping from Madison about his arrival there as a new prof that mentioned it). But I’d say for the most part nobody knows what he did. The OSS only declassified its personnel files two years ago though other files have long been available. Some portions of it are still classified (and people who went into the CIA are not available).
There is also a small collection of cartographic material, though nothing as extensive as RG256. I got some good scans. Annoying–they now have not only a color photocopier since my last visit but a color scanner at 600dpi. It costs $3.50 a foot.
I’m collecting material for a chapter I’m writing with Trevor Barnes. He’s doing Ed Ackerman, another well-known geographer whose wartime activity is less than well known. Trevor gave a very interesting talk on some of this material last year in Germany where we first met and agreed to work together. It’s a book edited by Scott Kirsch and Colin Flint on reconstructing conflict.