By Molly Shilo, 2020-2021 American Studies Graduate Assistant
Let me introduce myself: my name is Molly Shilo, and I was the American Studies Graduate Assistant for the Lemon Project during the 202-2021 academic year.
When I became the graduate assistant for the Project and learned more about the research they wanted me to take up this semester, I was really excited. Coming from an American Studies background with an undergraduate degree in English and media studies, I had no previous experience doing archival research, but I had read numerous monographs and articles lamenting the violent erasure within the archive, especially when it comes to the period of American slavery. Yet, I couldn’t shake the image I had of being in the archives, sitting at a table, sifting through old, faded papers, and hoping to come across something groundbreaking.
However, archival research isn’t exactly like that — and definitely not during a pandemic. Instead, I was searching through the Special Collections database, compiling a spreadsheet of different folders and boxes that seemed most relevant, and submitting requests to our archivists to digitize whatever materials they could. Once those scans arrived in my inbox, I then had the (sometimes tedious) task of trying to transcribe illegible scribbles and discern the contents of letters, diaries, account books, and other papers that people had left behind. I think this was the most difficult, and least anticipated, part of this research. It seemed almost impossible at times to decipher someone’s handwriting, no matter how long I may have stared and stared.
Although this research didn’t necessarily turn out the way I had imagined, that wasn’t a bad thing. Instead, it gave me a newfound appreciation for how complicated, taxing, and difficult this work is. It is one thing to learn about theories of the archive or to read historical monographs that have grown out of this initial stage of research, but there is no better way to recognize its frustrations and joys except for getting in there yourself.