All Good Things Must Temporarily Pause Until the Next Time

ArchiveBoxes.jpgWell, finished Day Two of the research trip.  It was also Quiche Day at the convent.  There were about five different types of quiches to be had, plus salad. I think the quiche was made with a real crust with real butter, not the fake Pillsbury dough crust I usually use when I make quiche or pie.

On the whole it was a good day.  I got through more than I thought, despite having to accept I wouldn’t get through everything.  (I feel like that could a metaphor for life or something.)

I looked at a series of files that spanned a decade, which allowed me to see some change or evolution (historians love change over time). I read mostly correspondence and some news clippings.  Many of the letters I looked at were “circular letters,” which are correspondence to be circulated among the members of the different local houses or convents within a community.  Often they are from a provincial or generalate superior and are a means of circulating information.  Like a lot of official correspondence, they can skate over the surface of information, except when laying out details of communities Rule or customs, but they do say something.  When they are a part of a larger span of letters or files, it is interesting to see what other records reveal in conjunction with the circular letters.  How do we interpret what we read? How do we evaluate?

There is more to examine in this collection as is there in the entire Mercy Heritage Center.  The Mercys archivists have done good work with records management.  Much of the records that were transferred to Belmont were in good order with finding aids.  The Center staff are processing the collections and working to digitize the records for future researchers.  I highly recommend looking into its collections and visiting.  And besides, it might be Quiche Day when you are there.

 

 

Never Enough Time: How to Keep Up the Pace in the Archives

Day one of the Great Fall Research Trip down, one day left.  (Hey, it’s Fall Break, not Spring Break, or Summer Holidays. Fall-only-two-days-Break.)  Things have changed since the first time I entered an archives.  Sure, pencils still rule the day, but now one can use digital camera things to take pictures! (As long as they are approved by the archives.  Don’t go snapping pictures unless you have permission!)

The trouble with archives is that they are full of cool things to read and look at.  Yes, this is a true statement.  Now, do all those cool things apply to one’s current research? No.  Of course not.  They may however be of use at some point.  Or they may have the potential to be of use.  Or they are just very interesting and therefore the shiny object which could drag a researcher down a rabbit hole.  It is important to stay focused and keep moving.

And now we have digital cameras to take pictures of the shiny things for free!  But no, we will stay time-on-task because if the copies are free, my time is not and cannot afford to come back before I need to produce a conference paper.  Here, however, are a few helpful tips for keeping up the pace:

  1. Skim and search for keywords: Most historians learn (especially in graduate school) to read quickly.  If you have any sense of what you want to find or explore, look for those keywords. And the copy everything around it. (Remember, with digital camera, you can read that document in full later.)
  2. Get the full citation: Make sure you get the whole citation for future reference.  Literally.  Sure, sure, you may think you will remember it or have everything you need, but you will one day need to email all of your friends and listservs and then maybe grovel to the archivist to find that source’s citation and you will waste time.  Trust me.
  3. Bring mints: You don’t have time to take a break for snacks or lunch or whatever.  Keep your head down and your blood sugar up.  If you must break for lunch, make it quick. If you can, bring food that doesn’t require refrigeration.  Unless you go to a religious archives where they invite you to lunch at the convent, which is really awesome.  Again, religious archives have cool things.
  4. Don’t hydrate too much: This seems self-explanatory and slightly indelicate to explain why.  Besides you aren’t supposed to have liquids in the archives. This is not one of those new-styled libraries where there aren’t any books, but they have coffee shops. (To be honest, I do like that I can get coffee in libraries, but I am morally opposed to having the coffee, or any other food or beverage, near books.)
  5. Occasionally stretch your legs: You may find yourself getting tired when you spend eight hours in an archives.  Stand up, stretch, maybe take a quick stroll down the hall (especially if you didn’t heed the above advice).

The first day also reminded me (as if I needed reminding!) how good religious archives are.  There are wonders to be explored and there are good people working in these archives.  The Mercy Heritage Center has lots of cool things and I would highly recommend it.

Something About a Bike and Getting Back on It

This morning, I got on an airplane and took a nearly two-hour flight to use an archives.  I am currently settled in a local hotel organizing my notes and contemplating some grading that I really need to do.  I am about to spend two days at the Mercy Heritage Center and explore some files I hope will help me write a paper I will give next April.  Suddenly, after a couple years of not having something to research, here I am.

Is it like starting over or starting again? The subject of my paper has to do with the Sisters of Mercy – not new – but it is in an area I haven’t really explored before – so new.

When the Mercy book was finally published, I had to start thinking about what the next project would be.  (This isn’t the first time I have thought about this.) I am not in a solid work place. (By solid, I mean a contract more than a year or tenure-track.  Fine – whatever – making due.)  But what this means is that I have to figure out how to be engaged with scholarship while making it affordable. And fit into my schedule.  (I don’t claim that I am the only person in the known world to have such things to consider.)

And I would really like to write another book.  I think I have another one in me.  It’s either that or write a historical murder mystery involving crime-solving nuns.

I have lists of projects or potential projects and this is the first time one of those items moved from the “potential” phase.  I used a call-for-papers for a conference at the Cushwa Center to help propel me back into research mode.  (Since my paper was accepted, I have to write it. Funny that. That said, a paper proposal is a very good way of kicking oneself in one’s posterior.) One reason this trip is at all possible is that I get a little research funding in my current position.  Without it, I would have to fund my plane, hotel, car rental, food, and photocopies out of my own pocket.  This is not cheap.

So, I got on a plane and here I am.  Ready to get started.  New leaves are turning over.  Horses are being climbed onto again.  Bikes are being ridden again.    Maybe I’ll even go to the gym again and get in shape.  New day.

Getting Back to the Business at Hand: Women of Faith

If a person is to have a successful blog, or at least arrive at the vicinity of “some traffic” that person better start posting.

9780823254736I have had recently the amazing good fortune of publishing my book.  On February 1, my book, Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community was released by Fordham University Press.  This is a history of the Sisters of Mercy Chicago Regional Community from its first foundation in Chicago in 1846, its expansion into Iowa and Wisconsin, its amalgamation into one province in the twentieth century, and finally its merger into a larger regional community, West Midwest in 2008. I was honored to write this history.

I began researching this project in the summer of 2006.  I had just defended my dissertation the previous fall and I had little conception of where I would go next.  I study women religious and that often translated into a particular religious congregation and a particular ministry.  For example, my dissertation looked at the Sisters of Charity and the Santa Maria Institute from the 1890s to the 1930s in Cincinnati, Ohio.  In graduate school I became intrigued by the Santa Maria Institute, a Catholic Social Settlement established to “save” Italian souls from the Protestant “proselyters” in that city.  It was founded and directed throughout this period by two Italian sisters – blood sisters and in community – Blandina and Justina Segale, SC.  These two women, their dynamic personalities, are at the center of this study.  They, along with a network of lay volunteers, both Italian and Italian American, developed and maintained this social settlement.

My study was ultimately about sisters and their institutional ministry.  A building.  Sure the Santa Maria occupied several locations, but it and my study was located in a particular place/ministry/identity.  When done, what was I to do next?  Right before I learned of the Chicago Mercy History project, I vaguely cast about to discover what Catholic community I would unearth in my area. I reside in Northwest Indiana and I have a limited travel budget.  I was starting to get a little concerned.  Then along came the Mercys.

There is much to talk about in this project – in the process of this project.  I am a Catholic woman who is not a woman religious.  So, I am an insider who is an outsider.  I was hired to write this project and the congregation owns copyright for all of it.  I worked with an editorial board consisting of members of the community and others.  This last point proved to be one of the more important elements to the development of this project. I worked with Sisters of Mercy and in doing so, I came to what is the more important aspect of the Chicago Mercy’s history – the thing that needed focus – the focus of this history wasn’t going to be the buildings and institutions.  It was going to be the ministerial, community, and spiritual lives of the sisters.  As historians, we care about the institutions.  Nothing wrong with institutional history.  For this moment in the Chicago Mercys’ history, considering how they as a community got to where they are now – a part of West Midwest – and focused on the future – meant trying to get at who they were, are, and will be as women religious.

This, I hope, is something I can transfer to my next project – whatever that is. I am still a historian of Catholic women religious.  Shall I cast about my eye in another direction?

Productivity Archival Style

Today was a good day.  I spent about five hours in an archives doing some research to fill in some gaps for my book.  I will have to come back again, but that is fine by me.  I love doing research.  Research is addictive.  There is always another box to open, another file to skim, and definitely another document to photocopy (if one is so lucky).  Today, I found myself getting lured into folders and boxes that would be interesting to examine, but not pertinent to my current research goals. I kept thinking, “I can use this.  I can go back to that one section and clarify, beef it up, make my argument more compelling.”  Ahh… this is a trap.  One must steel oneself against such temptations.  I must keep time-on-task!*

I am doing my best to flesh out my last chapter.  The time period of this chapter is the 1980s to 2008.  It is shockingly current and makes my historian soul shudder.  This cannot be right?  Can it?  I remember the 1980s…  The other troublesome thing is that there is just so much documentation.  Who would think a historian would complain about having too many sources?  It is true.  Because the ravages of time have not beset the documentation from this section of my study, and because the records have been preserved by people more mindful of keep their history, there is a lot of stuff to wade through: some good, some bad, and the worst yet, some whose usefulness is far from clear.  Maybe it will be helpful, someday.  Should I photocopy?  Should I take notes?  Quite the dilemma that does not get the job done.

And this leads me to an important tip to all novice researchers.  Keeping a notebook, journal, or Word document for all you kids out there with your texting and all that jazz of what you have examined and what you hope to study as you go through your research is a nice tool, one I did not learn soon enough.  Another helpful thing for me is to fully document at least once in your notes the citation of your sources.  That’s right, put footnotes in your notes.   Another good one is write on the back of your photocopies (or in pencil if you have double sided them) the reference.  Nothing is more maddening than going back to cite this fabulous primary document and you haven’t the foggiest idea where you got it.  It will save you an embarrassing correspondence to the archivist or librarian begging for their assistance.  Not that I have ever had to do that.  Of course not.

Everyone has to develop their own research style.  I have developed mine over low these twenty years (has it been that long?) since I started graduate work.  (I knew squat during undergrad.  I shudder at my stupidity.)  And you will think you have found the best way to do it and something will come along that will make it all the more easy.  (Where would I be without my laptop?  Still handwriting my notes on legal pads, that’s where!)

There is nothing like a good day in the archives to get one excited and enthusiastic for the craft of history.  I have a short stack of new photocopies and some notes.  I will be back to do more next week, but for now, I am content.

*At one point in my life, I studied education theory.  Hands down, one of the best phrases I ever learned was “time-on-task.”  It is no “self-fulfilling prophecy,” but what is?  It is nearly as good as the one I picked up in grad school: “that works on many levels.”  Priceless.