Graduate Student Research in New York

Reading Room, Columbia University

Usually in the field of history, like other fields, the sources come to you. Sometimes, you have to go to them. My name is Eric Medlin, and I made such a trip to do thesis research in my first year as an MA student.

In March 2016, I embarked on a three-day trip to New York City in order to do research in two of the city’s largest archives. This has been in my plan for grad school for some time. My project was one which would require many archival sources, particularly the unpublished letters and journals of prominent historians from the 1950s and 1960s. The archives at the New York Public Library and Columbia University would be two of the most important for my project. But I would need help if I hoped to pay for several days of travel, food and lodging in the country’s largest and most expensive city.

This was where the NCSU History Department stepped in. The department covered $950 of my four day trip, including air fare and a hotel room roughly equidistant to the archives I needed to visit. They were the ones who made the logistics of this trip work.

Hard at work in the New York Public Library Archives
Hard at work in the New York Public Library Archives

When I finally reached the city after many hours of travel, acquiring sources were easier than I could have previously anticipated. My first day at the New York Public Library involved analyzing and taking pictures of over 200 of these documents. I gained valuable insight, an extensive primary source base for my project, and also several great pictures of the buildings surrounding the library.

I spent my second day in New York (my 24th birthday) at Columbia University. The thousands of relevant documents and wealth of information from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library were not the highlights of my day, however. The main highlight was a meeting I had arranged weeks earlier with Eric Foner, one of the most famous historians in the country and an infrequent guest on shows like The Colbert Report. Dr. Foner was one of the most prominent students of the historian I was studying, so I hoped to gain valuable insight on my project from him. But also, this was Eric Foner, a man who has won two Bancroft Prizes, a Pulitzer Prize and the accolades of five decades of historians. I had to jump at this wonderful opportunity, which was made possible partially due to Dr. Foner’s generosity but also to my own university. NCSU’s travel grant did not only allow me to access the archives of New York City, but also gave me the opportunity to meet influential figures who live there.

Meeting with Dr. Foner helped me on two accounts. First, it was nice to hear a world-famous historian agree with your arguments and be intrigued about your project. But almost as importantly, Dr. Foner gave me numerous ideas to help guide my research. His advice led me to find connections and sources in my archive that had not been mentioned in over forty years of scholarly works on my topic. I utilized his help to guide my research through to the following day as well, when I spent half my time at the New York Public Library and the other half at Columbia. In all, I flipped through over one thousand documents and took pictures of nearly 800 of them.

My trip to New York City helped to define the second semester of my first year in a number of ways. It was of course helpful for my studies, allowing me to bolster my primary source base and find documents that would help me make an original, substantial contribution to my field. But my NCSU-funded trip also gave me all of the opportunities that New York City, or any prominent place for that matter, can provide. It allowed me to analyze sources in world-class manuscript libraries staffed by helpful, well-informed librarians. The trip gave me the opportunity to talk to one of the country’s most prominent historians and receive valuable insight I could not have found anywhere else. It was the lynchpin which made my research project, and by extension my entire master’s thesis possible. If anyone has a suitable project and an opportunity, they should apply for research funding with NC State.

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