Archive for ‘aventuras en los archivos’

May 22, 2009

embracing solitude.

by la rebelde


I spent a couple days this week at the Spiffy-ton library–not researching in los archivos like before.  Just writing.  My colegas recommend that I write there because in the “reading room” you are not alone.  You are not alone.  There are many others hunched over in the darkness, typing away. The only light, it seems, comes from the brass desk lamps–one at each desk–that shine on books and documents propped up under them.  The lamps and the eery blue-ish glow of laptop screens reflecting on pale faces adorned with spectacles.  I am often the youngest one there–or at least one of the only ones without a head of white hair.  The room has that old library feel like those old ivy schools back east.  All four walls are two stories high, covered floor-to-ceiling with books. There are no windows and no skylights.  It feels like a dungeon to me.

At 11:45 most folks begin to trickle out for lunch, meeting up with other scholars who frequent the Spiffy, most of whom have come to town for an intense visit to look at all that old dusty stuff they keep in the basement vaults somewhere beneath where we sit.  A couple of times, I have had pleasant conversations with well-established visiting scholars, who, like me, have no one else to eat lunch with.  We talk about the beautiful botanical gardens, our research, our home institutions.

It is a nice place to get lots of work done, but I can’t seem to get on board with the gushing excitement everyone else seems to feel about working there.  It may be real pretty, but it is, after all, a private and very exclusive library that requires an extensive process to prove one’s scholarly business in order to enter the building.  Nothing demonstrates exclusion like 10-foot-high iron fencing stretching a few miles around the perimeter.  And as a young-looking brown woman, I have been chased down the hallway while entering with a group of white scholars because the receptionist didn’t get a good look at my research badge.  Once I was turned away at the gate when the grounds were closed to the public (even though the library was open) because I didn’t look like a scholar to the guard (even though I showed him my research badge, he said it was closed that day–and when I inquired the following day at the library, it turned out that the library actually had been open).  I heard once that they leave a little gate open on the side of the grounds for 30 min every morning so that the Latina/o staff–gardening and custodial workers–don’t have to walk the extra mile around to the main gate.  These workers have been the most friendly to me.  I may be a good historian.  Heck, I may even be great one day.  But I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable at the Spiffy.  Not that the university setting is much better, but somehow it’s different.

You may not be alone while writing at the Spiffy, but writing is a lonely process regardless.  My mom, who just finished her Ph.D. last fall, keeps telling me that I need to embrace my solitude.  “I know you are a social person, but you don’t really need a social life right now.  You just need to write,” she’d said on the phone last week.  A few days later, a mentor-friend told me that writing a dissertation is not a human(izing) process, thereby confirming my barely-suppressed feelings of anxiety about isolation and lack of community.  A lot of academics tend toward the hermit-ish, but I have never been one of them.  And so, I am trying to embrace my solitude.  And I am deciding whether or not to move back to small-midwestern-college-town for what better be my final year of dissertation-writing.  And in the meantime I will keep going to the Spiffy.  And hopefully some days my brown colegas will be there.  And I will keep going to my favorite coffee shops (despite the hipsters).  And I will keep writing.

February 6, 2008

morningtime musings.

by la rebelde

After getting only a couple hours of sleep (due to the dissertation ideas that were dancing up a storm in my brain after my head hit the pillow), I woke up super early, earlier than I needed to, and way earlier than I have in a long time. I couldn’t even lie in bed and listen to n.p.r., which is my usual morning ritual. So I got ready and headed over to Lovebirds–my favorite morning coffee/bakery spot because the viejitos seem to know almost everyone who walks through the door and they say hello really loudly in their viejito voices that ring like wisdom. I figured I could have some coffee and get some of these partying ideas on paper before heading to my Spanish conversation class downtown.

Then, because I wasn’t in rush-mode, my Spanish was practically rollin’ off my tongue during my conversation class. In the afternoon, I headed to the Spiffy-ton to look at old stuff again. There I ran into one of my diss group colegas. It was nice to see a friendly (brown) face and chat for a few minutes. And then, during the weekly social break, I met a brown historian elder, who was very friendly and human. I suddenly felt a little less alone in the process.

The funny thing is, I may not be a morning person, but I definitely do my best thinking (and writing) from sunrise until about 10am. The verdict? A good cafecito and the smell of fresh baked goods among viejitos while dumping my brain in turquoise ink onto fun graph paper is a great way to start the day. And who knows, maybe it shaped the rest of my day in a good way. Now, if only I can make this a regular ritual!

December 11, 2007

mid-december snippets.

by la rebelde

Random reminiscences from the last few days.

  • Was driving on the 210 the other evening when a giant menorah atop a minivan going 70 mph passed me. 2 of the very bright candles were lit!
  • Had brunch with an LA historian whose book is important for my dissertation–his partner is a friend of a friend. He said that it’s probably not fungus that I’m allergic to in the archive, but dust, because if there was fungus, the whole archive would be quarantined. He knows of examples when this has happened. (I discussed my allergic reaction to los archivos in my last post.)
  • Used the weekend to clear the archive “dust” from my nasal passages. (and seriously, do we really know what the archive dust is composed of? Isn’t it possible that the “dust” has dead fungus in it? I’m no scientist, but its just a thought…)
  • Attended a local Latino holiday festival at the high school down the street. There were lots of children dancing. It made me think about how different my life might be had I gone to a high school of mostly Asian and Latino students (as opposed to the white one in WV).
  • Attempted unsuccessfully to open a bottle of wine with a screw-on top. It was on sale. And it still sits in the fridge unopened and unenjoyed.
  • Had dinner with a married friend and two of her couple-friends (that’s 5 people not including me: 2 married couples + 1 married friend whose husband is out of town). Both couples are expecting—one is about to pop at any moment. It was interesting conversation and kind of exciting—baby rooms, baby clothes, diaper bags, food cravings, sore legs and backs. If they weren’t such cool people, I might have vomited a little in the back of my mouth. I say this fully knowing that when my close friends or I become preggers, we’ll probably talk about it non-stop too. (And I would understand if the single-and-slightly-bitter person wanted to vomit a little in the back of her/his mouth then too.)
  • A big white Santa, wearing yellow shades, came into the room with the old stuff at the Spiffy-ton today, just as they rang the lunch bell (which means we have to turn in all the old stuff until they come back from lunch break). I got up to return my old-ass book, but Santa ran after me with a bag of Hershey kisses. It was weird, but I love Hershey kisses!
December 7, 2007

watchate with los archivos.

by la rebelde

There are some hazards to working in los archivos for 4+ days per week. Ones I didn’t know about until now. I mean, there are the usual culprits. Smished ass and sore back because the chairs are uncomfortable. Carpal tunnel because you have to type everything when photocopies cost a ridiculous amount and they don’t allow cameras. Strained eyes from looking at bad 19th century handwriting, sometimes in dim lighting—especially when those dudes got happy with the inkwells. Sore knees because your feet usually don’t reach the ground.

Then, of course, when you’ve been holed up amongst the dead-come-back-to-life for hours on end, you can’t help but become a little more loca than you were last week. Especially if you read racist accounts written by white people for hours on end because that is the only way you can get at the “voices” of the brown people you really want to study.

Lucky for me, the Spiffy-ton has very nice desk chairs with lumbar support and the ability to adjust to my small stature. And the lighting is great (if you stay in the room with the old stuff and away from the retro dark room). And I live close enough to get home to my t.v. and couch within 15 minutes. Did I mention I have cable now?

But the newest hazard for me has been the literal allergic reaction I’ve had to the old stuff. They make me sneeze a lot and my nose run, which is so not cool when the silence in the room is deafening despite the 20 or so other researchers surrounding me. A few weeks ago a friend (a postwar historian, no less!!) suggested that I wear gloves to protect myself from “archive fungus.” Yea dude. Archive. Fungus. Then one day I saw a woman wearing a bandana over her face while looking at old stuff. And then today, someone else pointed out that there is a lot of mold. Okay, so maybe I’m not allergic to los archivos…I’m allergic to the archive fungus. Who knew historical research was a biological battle as well as an intellectual one! Whoever said that the documents are alive, was not kidding.

November 16, 2007

mid-november madness.

by la rebelde

Today. In no particular order.

  • Morning routine. One hour.
  • Meeting with the archivist, in which he basically said I have to trudge through the old card catalogs using “brute force” because I study people who weren’t rich and white and/or male. One hour.
  • Flipping through card catalogs and typing notes—yes, notes about the cards. Five hours.
  • Lunch with a very nice professor from a quaint east coast school. One hour.
  • Commute, errands and gas for the car so I can go to the Spiffy again tomorrow. One hour.
  • “Rest” and eat dinner. One hour.
  • Work on fellowship essays and figure out what my dissertation is about so I can talk to mi profa about it on the phone tomorrow morning at an ungodly hour. Five hours.

I’m exhausted. How did I manage to completely lose 3 waking hours? It’s like those times when I couldn’t figure out how I lost track of five bucks in my wallet, when I’d actually spent it.

That nagging feeling is back. The one where it seems that there are not enough hours in the day to get everything you need to get done, done. It’s that kind of feeling where you feel a fluttering in your chest, like a caged butterfly banging its wings against your ribs.

At least I can sleep tonight knowing I’m not alone in this. It is November after all!

November 14, 2007

surviving the stacks.

by la rebelde

I believe libraries are wonderful things, I just don’t enjoy being in them. I love being a historian, but there is not a moment when I enter a library that I do not question my decision to become a one. Yesterday was no different…

It was the first day of my month-long research fellowship at a huge private collection with a very “regal” sounding name, that I’m going to call “the Spiffy-ton” or “the Spiffy” for short.

Taking the morning to work on fellowship applications, I decided to head over to The Spiffy after lunch. I have been to there a few times before, but never to the library part, because you have to show lots of ID and fill out lots of forms—it’s all very official. Different from university archives where there are only a few researchers at any given time and undergrads also work there, the Spiffy operates sort of like an academic department/conference. All the researchers are encouraged to interact daily and chit-chat about their “work” and stuff (I learned right away not to say “dissertation” unless it comes up.) It’s all about nurturing the profession and the field, I guess… (I have more to say about that, but I’ll save it for another post.)

After an hour-long orientation in which I was given a thorough tour of the library facility and completed the necessary paperwork, I spent another hour pouring through card catalogs. And then about 20 minutes at the weekly coffee/snack reception, where I participated in banal academic banter. (It seems I’d forgotten how to interact with academics since I’ve been away from campus for a while….they try to be witty and clever, but dang y’all, I roll with some dorky folks.)

Fast forward two hours. I decided to request some photocopies after exploring the stacks for a bit. When I entered the hallway, all the lights were out and no one was around. The library had been closed for half an hour! In the stacks, no one else had been exploring near me. There were no clocks. No bells. No flicker of the lights. Nada! Panicking slightly, I re-shelved the books and headed back to the locker area to get my stuff. The viejito at the reception desk gave me a stern reprimanding about how I shouldn’t be there at that hour. And how I could have been locked in overnight, if the guard and everyone else had gone home before I got there.

¡Hiiiiiijole frijole! I couldn’t help but think that my absent-minded, probably-more-dorky-than-I-admit ass could have passed out in the dusty stacks and might not have been found until (maybe) someone happened to walk by! There’s a book I read when I was in elementary school (can’t remember the title) about these kids who run away from home, packing their clothes in their musical instrument cases and they hide in the museum overnight. I could have been like them—only accidental!

Today was much better…even though I still can’t find my way around. This time I watched the clock religiously. I’m still not a fan of the library….

This very cool flickr image is by brighterorange. For attribution info click here.

June 7, 2007

another day at los archivos.

by la rebelde

I’ve already spent weeks listening to tapes of oral history interviews that were conducted in 1979. Really old cassette tapes on a really old tape player that doesn’t have a volume control. Is this the difference between researching at a public institution versus a private collection? Today I only just finished interview #16. There are 165 interviews in the collection. Yikes! And of course, not all of them are pertinent to my dissertation, but I feel compelled to listen to much more than I should. The historian in me keeps nagging about not transcribing word-for-word, all parts that are remotely related my study. You don’t want to misquote anything, she says in my head. What if that quote will be the illuminating morsel for the story you’re telling? So I keep pressing rewind, play, rewind, play.

I sit for hours in this vault they call a “reading room”—complete with buzz-in access—at an enormous table with other researchers who sit with bent heads over old-ass papers, browned newspaper clippings and dusty books propped on foam stands to protect the binding. The quiet is mind-numbing.

I take periodic stretch-breaks because there are only these enormous (and they are seriously enormous) blue leather chairs. If I sit all the way back on them, my feet stick straight out, like they did when I was a little girl sitting next to my dad in the pew at church. So I perch at the edge of the chair and type, type, type away.

The people whose interviews are most important for my work are of older Chinese people whose parents and sometimes grandparents came to Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th Century—most before 1905. Their sometimes shaky but confident voices sound like wisdom, reminding me of my own grandparents, and how viejitos sometimes tell really great stories, and how much we can learn from their years of living. And so I keep pressing the headphones into my head periodically so that I don’t miss a word.

May 8, 2007

muggle memorias.

by la rebelde

I’ve been kinda proud of myself these days, not only because I’ve been going to spinning classes regularly, but more importantly, because I’ve finally developed a regular schedule—one that involves regular visits to los archivos! Let me be clear about this, though—I’m still not a fan of the library. And I’m definitely (still) not a fan of sitting in front of a bunch of old dusty papers trying to coax a story to emerge from seemingly disparate documents, photos, letters, pamphlets, and most recently for me, cassette tapes. I like to tell the story, but not the process of searching for the pieces. It’s just that I will never be that kind of historian—you know, the kind who just loves to immerse him/herself in their documents (with a capital “D”)? Yea, I am not that girl.

If I was a graduate of Hogwarts, I would find a spell to make the images of historical actors arise from the dust and tell me what the heck they thought was going on back then. But then again researching for the spell probably involves los archivos—those Hogwarts kids seem to spend a lot of time in the library, and their books are super old and mad dusty! Or else I would just jump into Dumbledore’s pensieve—the cauldron thingy where he stores his memorias, memorias that take the shape of silver cobweb-like slivers, which he pulls out of his head with his wand to free up space in his brain and so he can go back and see stuff he doesn’t remember. I would hope that the folks, whose stories I want to know about, stored their memorias in those pensieve thingies too. That way I could just watch the scene. One could say that the archival collection itself is akin to the pensieve—but I already tried to trick myself into thinking that and it didn’t work. (If you don’t understand the pensieve thingy, you must read the Harry Potters—or at the very least, watch the movies. In case you’re curious, Harry discovers the cauldron memory thing in book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.)

But alas, I am a muggle and there are no pensieves in my world. And since I’ve had trouble getting going on the dusty papers after I finished my dissertation prospectus, I’ve found that it helps me to de-center the archives in my life. I’m trying to make “regular” visits and attempting not to structure my entire week around these visits. I’m hoping to find some semblance of balance, even if it’s only superficial. That’s why I’m making my spinning classes/running routine a “regular” part of my life. Morning is for exercising or relaxing or doing a bit of writing. (Okay, who am I kidding? Morning is for bolting out of bed to the gym or laying in bed listening to NPR for an hour or longer.) Afternoon/early evening is for working. Later evening is for whatever I feel like I need to do, which, believe it or not, sometimes involves my dissertation. But on the real, evening is usually for watching primetime television or catching up with las girlfriends on the phone. We’ll see how well this schedule works for me and how long I’m able to trick myself into following it. In the meantime, I’ll keep imagining my world melded into the wizard world.

today’s aventura en los archivos:
The student worker woman who monitors the reading room in the special collections fell asleep at the throne-like structure that towers in the front of the room by the door. (If I was in undergrad library worker, I might have taken a nap too!) She is in charge of bringing us our requested documents, books or what-have-you. She’s also in charge of letting people in and out of the room, by pressing a secret button under the counter to release the door lock. While she was sleeping, another researcher finished up for the day, gathered his things and headed for the door. He didn’t want to wake her up or make noise in the dead silence of the room, so he frantically waved at the people at the desk outside the reading room through the door window. They didn’t see him. Finally the student worker woke up with a start and let him out, with a look of embarrassment of having been caught asleep on the job. I had to fight the urge to giggle out loud at the situation because it was kinda funny. Because I had been cooped up in that stuffy room for hours. Because I was tired from straining to hear una viejita tell her story on a cassette tape recorded in the 1970s. And because I was afraid I’d be in the same situation if she fell asleep again and I had to go to the bathroom. I figured what-goes-around-comes-around is nothing to mess with.