Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 19, 2008

In Praise of Archives

I knew that Smith College special collections housed the old journals of poet Sylvia Plath, one of their famous alums, but reading a Hampshire Gazette article (1/18/08) about a January semester course on clothing restoration, I learned they also have Plath’s prom dress and old Girl Scout uniform. The restorer notes, while holding the sash hefty with badges, “That girl worked hard.” No kidding.

Oh, it makes me want to go and touch, or at least see and smell, old taffeta, silk, cotton, and drying-out pages, too. One college student notes how each dress holds a story, often on different levels: the beauty but sometimes pain in moving in such clothes. People have told me how they’d like to write about history, but don’t really like to research. I tend to think of research as the most fun part. Mostly it’s reading: what’s wrong with that? It’s easier than writing. And sometimes you get to slip into archives – the very word, suggesting what’s hidden and cloistered, mystery – makes me want to be there. There’s s a hush. Pens are banned, but pencils allowed. There was one lucky day in my writer’s life when, in Cambridge, I sat behind someone reading medieval parchment, opened a cardboard box, and touched letters written by May Alcott to her sister Louisa. To do this, all I had to do was show a driver’s license. Unbelievable. I might as well have been in heaven.



  1. Wow.

  2. Hooray for research geeks! Research IS the best part.
    Thanks for the wonderful reminder.

  3. When I was in college, I had the wonderful opportunity, actually several times, to visit the “basement” collection at the Freer gallery in DC. It was amazing to be so up close and personal with these ancient pots, to hold them in my hands (over a padded table)and to feel the wonder that these objects made so long ago still hold.
    It’s a shame, due to money issues, I don’t believe they offer these visits to students any longer.

  4. Oh, I didn’t know there was a name for that. I love being a research geek! Thanks (I must tell my husband who thinks he owns the geekiness in our house.)

  5. Oh, that really does take my breath away. Holding those things we grew up seeing behind glass and Do Not Touch signs. I hope some students get to do such things — I have a friend whose daughter at GW got to weild needle and thread in the Smithsonan, that wonderful “nation’s attic” WHERE YOU GET TO GO INTO FOR FREE. (that’s Massachusetts museum envy that made that go all caps!) It is just amazing though to not just see but touch the past. Wow.

  6. It is amazing and wonderful that all those museums are available to us at no charge. I really ought to go more often, I realized yesterday that I missed a big Hopper retrospective that’s been at the NGA for months! Dang.

  7. I don’t know how someone could find research boring. I remember a time I had to illustrate a novel about WWII and I needed to know what this german officer’s uniform looked like and the weapon he used. Well, I went to the Springfield Public Library and was lost for hours looking at photos and articles about the Nazis and their paraphanalia. It was sooooo interesting. The only problem with research is that the hours fly by and I am not getting back to my work very quickly.

  8. Hey, Ms. E! Yes, I’m with you. When I do writing that needs research, I try to limit the research part till after 3 p.m, and devote the earlier part of the day to writing because the hours can fly be as you go from one fascinating thing to the other – mostly irrelelevant, but you never know when you’ll find the gem….
    Thanks for commenting!

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