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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Into the Archives: My introduction to archival research

Archival map of Malabar
A 1950s map of Malabar Farm - just one of the documents in OSU's archives

Archival research is the gold standard in the historical profession. Sure, you can do good historical research using published primary sources. But the lure of archival documents is that you might be the first person to ever look at them since they were donated to the archive. You might find something that no historian has yet documented. And your research will definitely be original.

I didn’t know any of that when I decided to start archival research at The Ohio State University in 2015. After all, I was a plant science student, and I hadn’t even taken my one required history gen ed class yet. The reason I headed back to the Thompson Library through the snow on that bitterly cold January day was because I wanted to learn more about Malabar Farm—and I hadn’t found a published source that answered my questions.

Since it was my first time ever in an archive, I had arranged in advance to meet with Dr. Geoff Smith, the Rare Books curator who had told me about the Louis Bromfield Collection over a year earlier. I was glad he was willing to take me into the Rare Books Reading Room for the first time, because it was a little intimidating.

Except for the Testing Center, the Rare Books Reading Room was one of the highest-security areas I ever entered on campus. The glass door was locked. You couldn’t go in or out until one of the students at the desk pushed a button. If you tried to leave without permission, an alarm would go off and they had to quickly call the fire department before they showed up on the scene.

Once inside, I filled out a research form and signed my name and the time onto the logbook. Then the student worker let me back out so that I could put all of my stuff in a locker. Coat, hat, scarf, water bottle, backpack. No pens allowed. No water. I couldn’t even hang my sweatshirt on the back of the chair. All I could take in was a notebook and pencil.

The student worker assigned me a table and chair to sit at, facing the front desk so that they could keep an eye on me. Then she went over to a cart full of gray cardboard boxes, found the first box that I had requested from the Louis Bromfield Collection, asked me which folder I wanted, and checked it out to me. I carried the folder back to my table, opened it carefully, and started my first day of archival research.

After that first day, I got used to the security. The workers were very friendly and helpful, and I enjoyed my biweekly trips to the Reading Room. Over the course of the Spring 2015 semester, I went through typewritten letters, clipped articles, yellowed newspaper clippings, mimeographed newsletters, and reports about Malabar Farm written by Louis Bromfield and others.

The more I read, the more excited I became. I had stumbled across something incredibly important. Malabar Farm was far more than just one piece of land. It was a microcosm of all the changes that were happening in American agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s. It was through Malabar Farm that I learned about soil conservation, grass farming, soil health, and ecology. And those trips to the archives would shape my future career in ways I could never have imagined when I first nervously entered the Reading Room in January 2015.

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