For the Joy of Archives: Remembering to enjoy your work

I sat there a little nervous and excited. It had been some time since I’d been in an archive and I was mentally ticking off boxes about the rules, techniques, and unofficial code of conduct. For me an archive has an almost sacred feeling; like a kind of humanist holy of holies. It might be the awe or the possibility of undiscovered knowledge; a sense that it is a connection to other times, minds, and ideas; something transcendental. Or it could just be that it’s filled with really old things and I’m a bit of a nerd.


Whatever the reason, I sat at my table, notebook and pencil at the ready, excitedly waiting for the arcgivist and trying to desperately to hide that fact. It’s not quite proper to act like a small child on Christmas morning waiting to receive their first present in an archive. I didn’t have to wait long before the archivist walked over with 4 early 19th century volumes wrapped in well-worn bindings. They were placed gingerly on the table and I was presented with a white pillow to protect and cushion these sacred objects.


I couldn’t fully contain myself as I opened the first volume and a rather unprofessional grin crept across my face. I felt a bit like an adventurer and explorer as I began gently searching through these volumes for any word of a specific event that happened in 1784. The only problem was that I kept getting side tracked. There was so much interesting information that I was getting sucked into. Part of my mind trying to justify it by writing notes like: could possibly become separate publication or could potentially relate/ connect to later work. The other half of my brain was desperately trying to get me back on track. There was a nagging voice, going “you don’t have time for this”, “you’re already behind and this won’t help” or the classic “does this really relate to your thesis”. At which point I would get serious, ‘focus’, and get back to ‘work’; my half hidden grin transformed into the look of a tired serious scholar.


At least for me, when academic work becomes too enjoyable I begin to become a wee bit concerned. I think I must not be working fast enough, I’m getting off track, or what I’m doing must not really be work. The classic no pain no gain theory; if it doesn’t hurt, I must not be doing anything productive. At least in the gym, through a number of injuries, I’ve found that sentiment should be taken with a grain of salt. For some reason though it persists in some of my academic work. I think in part something happens when we begin to refer to it as ‘work’; something that says for it to count it should feel a certain way. The more I examine this thought or feeling – I’m not quite sure which to call it – the more I see it robbing me of motivation and fulfilment.


In retrospect, I’ve begun to think would it really have been so bad to spend an extra hour or two in the archives? How many hours have I wasted watching Youtube clips working up the motivation to start working because I’m knackered from trying to always rush and be ‘focused’? Beyond that how much more enjoyable would my research be without that nagging voice, like a manager on a factory floor, yelling at me to hurry up. When I look at it that way, spending an extra hour in the archives could have been the most efficient and effective use of my time that day.


Granted the reality is that there are real time constraints and physical limitations on the productive hours we have each day, so keeping an eye on the clock isn’t a bad thing. But what I think I’m going to try and do a bit more of is to remember to enjoy my time researching. I think in part that means giving myself the freedom to get a little distracted in the details; to take a moment and be in awe of the history I’m getting to hold in my hands or the ideas that I’m getting to grapple with and critique. To even find the joy again in academic writing, of creating something, shaping and moulding it into something clear, informative, and engaging. I won’t kid myself, I’m sure many of my days will still be characterised by a sheer force of will and there will still be tasks I will despise, but I hope in remembering to enjoy my work, remembering that I actually do really enjoy it, it will make the process healthier and the end product better.


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