Days 3 & 4: One Down…

Not a whole lot to report on about yesterday’s trip back to the archive at NYU and today’s time spent seeking shelter from the rain. Yesterday I finished off looking through the relevant holdings, which yielded some interesting documents — things like court documents and articles in the newspapers of affiliated organizations (e.g., Triple Jeopardy, the paper of the Third World Women’s Alliance). Today I’m processing the photos and notes that I took, trying to identify documents for which to request high-quality scans — all while staying out of the rain for as long as possible. In this brief blog entry I want to address two things: the benefit of actually going to an archive and the usefulness of tethered WiFi from your phone. 

Why Physically Visit an Archive?

Let me start by saying, in case you don’t know me and it’s not obvious enough from my other posts, that I’m a BIG believer in technological enhancements to the research process. Journal articles and books in PDF format, databases that allow precise searches, modern computing technology that lets you write and research from a seat on the bus — all of these things are good. That said, I don’t think they can never be a good replacement for physically going to an archive and working with the documents in person. Why?

You interact with documents differently at an archive than you do on a computer or even on microfilm. I think part of this has to do with how we’ve trained ourselves to deal with the deluge of information that comes across our computer screens on a daily basis: we basically cope through avoidance. We scan, skim, search, and to all of those things that technology allows us to do … namely to process large amounts of information relatively quickly and efficiently. Physical documents in an archive, however, seem to demand a different approach. You can’t turn pages quickly because they’ll rip. You can’t read as quickly because the faded ink, discolored paper, and stains-of-unknown-origin make you work harder to discern what the heck is going on on the page, in the image, etc. The very physicality of the experience, then, forces you into a different kind of relationship with the documents than if they were on a screen. Now, by all means, put them on a screen later (digital archives are pretty useful, after all); but work with those documents in person first. You’ll learn more and experience them differently (more fully, I reckon) than if you were to deal exclusively with electronic formats.

Additionally, being in an archive gives you an opportunity to do some detective work that you may not otherwise have. For example, I went into my first archive with a list of collections and boxes within those collections that I wanted to see. Upon browsing through the documents, however, I started seeing connections to other event, people, and organizations. Being at the archive, I was able to follow up on those connections — to follow the leads, as I tell my students — and get some pretty cool other documents in the process. For example, something in one file reminded me of a connection the Lords had to the Third World Women’s Alliance, so I was able to browse through most of their newspaper’s production run.

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Tethered WiFi

I need to start this point with a qualifier, too: I do my research trips on the cheap. When I come to New York, I don’t stay in a nice Motel 6 or Super 8 because, IMHO, they’re too damn much money. Staying in a cheap hotel, however, means that you’ve got to sacrifice some conveniences: sometimes you do without a private bathroom, most of the time you do without room service or a TV, and always you do without free WiFi. Such is the case with my delightfully cheap and artistically quirky Carlton Arms Hotel.

In the past, I’ve always just chanced that I’d be able to find unsecure, free internet somewhere. After my last trip about a year and a half ago, however, I knew that failing to prepare would be a bad idea. While my phone and iPad both have 3G internet, I didn’t want to *have to* rely on those devices while I was sitting in my hotel room. As such, I had three basic choices:

  1. Pay an arm and a leg for a 3G internet dongle for my computer + a monthly plan.
  2. Pay an extra $20/month to AT&T to turn on the “personal hotspot” function of my iPhone, which allows you to share your phone’s 3G internet with your computer (via WiFi, Bluetooth, or USB).
  3. Jailbreak my iPhone and pay $5 (just once, not monthly) for the TetherMe app, which unlocks the iPhone’s native internet sharing functionality.

Jailbreaking used to be a scary thing, but it’s much simpler now. Just Google some directions or go to this site, which probably has the best information and links. If it still scares you, then pay your carrier’s fees to enable the feature. There is a reasonable chance that I’ll go over my monthly data allowance from using this, but then I’ll get charged a nominal fee for each gigabyte over my plan’s 2GB max. Spending the $10-30 more for internet is (a) better than the $30/week plan for crap internet that my hotel offers and (b) better than spending the $600-$1,000 more on the trip for a hotel that would offer WiFi (my hotel, with a private bath because I’m splurging, is less than $100 total/night). If you have a smartphone that can enable internet sharing, enable it — either through a jailbreak or through the carrier’s legit means. Don’t get stuck sans internet.

In Conclusion…

Use archives because they’re fun and enlightening. Jailbreak or otherwise enable internet sharing on your phone so you always have internet access no matter the decise you’re using. Alright, back to work I go. I have some more sorting to do, as well as some essay revisions before heading out to dinner tonight.

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