The Ins and Outs of Archival Research

Prof. Nathan Loewen received funding from the University of Alabama, a while back, to conduct archival research on the Derrida Papers in Irvine, California. So REL MA student, Morgan Frick, posed a few questions to him about what all that archival work entails.

Morgan: What was the project and how did you hope to improve your research with this archival work?

Nathan: In 2016-17, I was really fortunate to be funded by the Research Grants Committee at UA. My position at REL had just begun in 2015, and I was really looking forward to completing work on my research monograph. I can definitely say that my previous project, Beyond the Problem of Evil (Lexington, 2018), came together much more quickly due to this support. I used the funding to visit the Derrida (Jacques) Papers in the Special Collections and Archives at the University of California in Irvine twice: once in the summer of 2016 and again in fall 2017.

Jacques Derrida, who died on 8 October 2004, donated his notes and papers from 1948 to 2003. This amounts to 116 boxes and 10 oversize folders of materials. These are all originals, many written by hand and later copies written with a typewriter. What is interesting to me, and definitely merits a third trip, is that Derrida’s early notes have his unpublished analyses of several topics that I discuss in my book. In his early teaching career, Derrida’s busy teaching schedule in his early career (1946-56) lead to hundreds of pages of detailed lecture notes, wherein he jotted in additional extemporaneous asides, notes for further discussion and ideas for his own writing. From what I could read, there is little to no repetition in the course content. To me, it seems evident that Derrida used his teaching as an opportunity to conduct research with his students. The contents of those notes sometimes end up in books published much, much later in his career.

Morgan: What are the basic requirements of working with archives?

Nathan: These particular archives are strictly controlled: limited photography or automated reproduction is allowed only with the permission of the designates of the heirs of Jacques Derrida. Assuming that you already have a research topic or question, the first step with any archive is to determine not only the location of the archive but more importantly, who controls permissions for its access. With this particular case, an application is required to obtain access. I needed to give the dates of my visit and list the specific items I wished to examine. In the case of the Derrida Papers, I was lucky that there is a fairly exhaustive listing of the general contents for each box.

Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Nevertheless, it is impossible to really know what an archive will necessarily look like ahead of time. I made a fairly large request for my first visit, which I planned to last almost three weeks. I knew there would be plenty of time required for the process of discovery (the process of discovery is largely one of attempting to skim through materials to locate the most useful data). In the case of reading Derrida’s handwriting, this amounted to many weeks of days spent reading and sketching notes on philosophy lectures in hand-written French. The second trip was very useful since I returned with a far more clear idea of what I wanted to find, read, translate and understand.

Morgan: What are some benefits of working in person with archival materials as opposed to using tools on the internet?

Nathan: Archival work is essential for research of works that simply do not exist online. The Derrida Papers are not likely unique with respect to the restrictions placed upon their access and reproduction. While the number of archives and archival projects being produced for online access are likely increasing, some will simply never be made available in that format. That might provide a good reason for deciding to do “offline” archival research! In any case, the process is more or less the same: the potential archival scholar needs to formulate a research question that requires sifting through masses of stored materials with the intent of finding useful inroads to the question.

Morgan: What should students know about working in an archive?

Nathan: I will refrain from saying archival work is “fun.” In my case, there was plenty of eye strain. There was a lot of painstaking cross-referencing work, too. From those anecdotes, I can say that the most important thing to determine that you really have no other option than to do archival work in order to answer your research question. Put otherwise, you will likely experience an existential crisis if you do not go into archival research with a clear research agenda!