Conducting research is a rite-of-passage for many academic disciplines—this is especially true of history. My name is Jordan Karlis, and I am first-year graduate student in the History M.A. program at North Carolina State University.
Over the winter break, I embarked on my first pilgrimage as a young historian to investigate the archives of the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois for my M.A. thesis. I’m sure you are thinking, “how did a poor graduate student manage to afford a research trip to Chicago?!” Well, let me tell you. It was some time in early October that the History Department circulated its call for Graduate Student Travel Proposals, offering those that applied the opportunity to be funded by the department to attend a conference or research-related travel. When I first saw this, I filed the opportunity away for the nebulous future: something to aim for in my second year of graduate school rather than my first. Like many of my fellow colleagues, I was just trying to find my way in this uncharted territory of academia known as graduate school. However, my fantastic advisor encouraged me to apply for funding immediately. After all, what did I have to lose? To my surprise, the department accepted my travel grant of $1,200.
I was excited, but, I felt this overwhelming sense of uncertainty come over me—research? But how, what do I even do at a research library?! The idea of traveling by myself to conduct research for my own historic inquiry felt so foreign and prestigious; that’s what real historians do, not some graduate student like me. Though I was afraid, I had a fantastic support system within the History Department, both professors and peers alike.
Some historians would argue that there is an allure surrounding the archives, that there is something ‘magical’ about them, especially the first time. I would certainly have to agree with this.
About three weeks before my departure, I wrote to the staff of the Newberry Library to inform them of my intention to do research there. Thanks to there fantastic online catalogue, I was able to request materials from the Ayer and Graft collections ahead of time. Though I had prepared myself before my trip as best as possible, I spent the first of my nine nights in Chicago eagerly anticipating the rite-of-passage that I would undergo the following day. Some historians would argue that there is an allure surrounding the archives, that there is something “magical” about them, especially the first time. I would certainly have to agree with this. While at the Newberry Library, I recall my heart pounding–more often than not–as the friendly staff brought out the materials I requested to see. I am fairly certain that the staff knew I had never been to a research library given my naivety on how to handle the materials accordingly, not to mention the fact that I was hardly able to contain my excitement.
As I carefully turned the pages of a manuscript nearly 400 years old, I felt such a strong connection to the history it represented, almost as if I were a part of it. It was an incredible experience. The process of conducting research in the archives is truly something to marvel at. I cannot think of many things that would surpass this experience. I am beyond grateful to the knowledgeable librarians who were more than willing to assist me at the Newberry. Librarians are truly the backbone of archival work and their efforts should not go unrecognized! I am also indebted to the NC State History Department for funding my travel so I could experience the allure of the archives first hand. Since entering this program, I have felt nothing but the support of the department. They are committed to their students—something I have experienced this first hand.