These last days, I have received – like some of you I guess – two guidelines about how to do a master or a Phd Thesis in history of economics. That is too bad that I completed mine 10 years ago! Anyway, I am not sure that these pieces are really useful for it very much depends on what is the conception of history of economics you have and you intend to convey in your work. The best advice I can give – and that is the way I proceeded myself – is to look a recent Phd Thesis from someone you respect as a scholar and whom you feel shares your general methodological outlook, and use it as a kind of reference document. Receiving these guidelines made me wonder about the fact that in the blog, which is made by if not made for young (and not so young anymore) scholars there is, indeed, very little information about one organizes his research work.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the would-be historian of economics can safely go on the first day of his research the university library, inquire the librarian about where the complete works of Ricardo (by Sraffa) or the complete work of Marx (or Keynes or Hayek) were and very much sit here for the rest of his Phd Thesis. This is not the case anymore and it is now common and almost an obligatory requirement for a Phd student to have done some archival work. However, doing the Archives can be a very different – sometime nice, sometime quite painful – experience depending on which Archives you go. A few looks like that:
But quite often, you end up like this nice looking young researcher on the left. This image might look scary, but you may have gotten the wrong idea. Because for all the reassuring neatness and geometrical perfection of the archive below, the archivist may have done a very lousy job in cataloging it, meaning that you probably would have to open half of the drawers and go thoroughly through their content to get anywhere. Whereas, on the other hand, the half-smiling women might very well be the curator who knows in detail the content of the folders she is actually browsing for preparing the new catalog and you would get what you want in less than an hour!
More seriously, when looking forward to do an archive, it is very important to understand that the easier you get the information – by browsing on a digitallized catalog for example – the less chance you have to find something really new and unexpected. On the other hand, when you are inquiring about an archive on which you have very little information it is most important to keep a very open mind and to be a little stubborn even when the odds seems against you. Moreover, keep in mind that curators or archivists made mistakes and have limited knowledge of the content of their own archives. When one has been working for a long time in a specific archive, one often knows it better than its own curator.
Let me share a recent – last week in fact – experience I had in the Archives of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. In the context of a research project we are conducting with Yann on the visualization in US economics, we became interested in the Vienna economist and philosopher Otto Neurath and its possible connections on the other side of the Atlantic. As one of the former directors of the MSI was cousin to the economist and philosopher Otto Neurath, we inquired about the possible existence of a correspondence between the two cousins. We were told by an assistant curator that there was no correspondence. Indeed, as I discovered last week, the same assistant curator had been already sollicited, two years ago, by another researcher for the same piece and after working on it for a few days was unable to find it. The same researcher who was preparing a book on Neurath e-mailed the MSI again a few months later because he would go to Chicago for a conference, asking if it was worthwhile passing by the Museum archives to give a try about the correspondence. As the assistant curator repeated to him that he was unable to find anything, the researcher decided not to come. Hence, when he answered to our query, the assistant curator was pretty sure that there was nothing to find.
Being in Chicago for another project, I decided to give it a try anyway and spend a few days, at least one, in the MSI archives. The first day, I came with my sole computer not knowing if there was anything worthy. Looking through the inventory (made by the same competent assistant curator mentioned above) I did find a few things, enough to spend the whole day there and too decide to come back two days later with a digital camera to save my findings. I did not find the correspondence though: at the letter “N”, there was no folder “Neurath”. However, I found a mention to a letter the former MSI Director received from Neurath in one of the documents I read. It was enough to convince that there might be something that have been missed. On the second day and after digitallizing what I had found , I decided to go ‘fishing’. What I did was fairly simple and obvious, instead of looking at the name of the person, I looked at the name of the institution he was in charge at the time (the Vienna Museum of Economy and Society). And, indeed, I found the correspondence: dozens of letters and a few important documents that were supposed not to exist. Later on (I came for a third day), I tried to force my luck and repeat the same procedure with another individual. But this time I end up in a dead endd: the box I wanted to look at was nowhere to be found (I was looking for the box with the letter P, but the boxes between M and R were missing). We looked with the assistant curator in the premisses, but nothing! However, instead of calling it a day I asked for another kind of documents (pictures) to spend the two hours that were left for my last day at the archives. The assistant curator took me to the location where the pictures were archived but we were unable to find any of interest for me. Out of sheer curiosity, I browsed the shelves and look at the name on the boxes that were around, just to find the correspondence box I was looking after a few hours before. Inside was indeed the piece of correspondence I expected and a few valuable documents.
To sum up this very long post:
– When there might be a chance you can get an important piece of information or documentation in an archive, but you are told that there is nothing by the archivist. Try to verify it by yourself and take the necessary few days to do it properly. If you find nothing, which happens quite often, you may have lose a few hours or a few days, but if you find something unexpected you may have gain an easy and good article or a chapter from your forthcoming Phd thesis, which may in turn launch or speed up your career.
– When you plan to do an archive, use all the time you have even if the odds are that you ain’t gonna get anything more.
– Keep an open mind, if you do not find something at the obvious location it does not mean it is not there, it might have been placed somewhere else because the archivist does not have the same logic as you (you are thinking names of individuals and he sees names of institutions, or the reverse) or because it have been misplaced (shit happens).
– Do not lose heart. Especially when working on a archive that has not been properly catalogued or arranged. Quite often, the first hours or even the first days are not very useful: you do not know how to begin, what you are really looking for, you do not understand the logic of classification (which is almost always different in each archive). You may have the impression that it is like finding a needle in a haystack, there is however one big difference: when the archives are classified and most of them are, it means that there is a logic to it, you just have to find it! – Needless to say that it is easier say than done.