Planning a research trip

I’m just into Week 6 of an eight-week research trip to Italy, funded by the great folks at the Arms and Armour Heritage Trust. I’ve been gathering lots of material to explore the history of the handgun in sixteenth-century Italy (when it was a new technology). This has been my first long archive trip in some time, so I thought it might be useful to share some tips for those of you new to the business. They’re somewhat biased towards how things work in Italy (where the state archives were, charmingly, never centralised after unification which has the unfortunate effect of making it look like I’m on some sort of modern Grand Tour. Oh well). But I hope there’s something in here for everyone.

  1. Do your preparation. This might seem obvious, but there’s limited point in turning up to an archive to gather loads of material only to discover much of it was published in an obscure nineteenth-century tome (though everyone has done this once, so don’t be despondent if it happens!) It’s also unhelpful to turn up and find that the stuff you want was burnt in a fire (Venice) or bombed by the Allies (Naples). For Italy, the Guida Generale is your bible and many of the state archives are putting more detailed inventories online. But the state archives are only part of the story: there are many other private and local archives that may turn out to be useful. Ask colleagues for advice; ask the archivists for advice when you get there (or email queries in advance); see if there’s someone at the local university who might help.
  2. Decide how you’re going to approach your research. Does it make more sense to go to just one archive and mine it thoroughly? Or skip round several? Different research questions will need different strategies but it does take time to get to know the structure of any given archive, so a multiple-archive project will need extra preparation.
  3. Assuming you’re picking one or two main archives to work with, then (time allowing) it’s still worth taking the opportunity to visit other archives within commuting distance and scope out what they’ve got. From Bologna I’ve done day trips to Modena and Parma to look for a couple of specific types of source, which means I now have material for comparison across four different states rather than just two.
  4. Make your choices about timing. There are definite economies of scale on longer research trips. Apartment rental prices drop significantly once you hit a full month, and if you find something interesting but unexpected you can take the time to hit the library for background information and/or call up contextual material. Plus you can do the side trips in point 3. But for multiple reasons long trips aren’t feasible for everyone/all the time and you may have to do a ‘smash and grab’: turn up and photograph as much as you can in a short space of time.
  5. If you are doing a quick trip, planning is doubly important. For example, the Florence state archive restricts users to three items a day: Bologna allows eight. The latter is, therefore, a much brighter prospect for research methodologies that need large samples. If you do have to work with tight limits, think carefully about what to call each day and in what order so as to best fill your time. Two solid prospects and one more speculative request, for example. Or get it wrong and be forced to take the afternoon off to eat ice-cream and see art. What the hell: you’re in Florence and you only live once.
  6. At the risk of sounding obvious again, back up your work/photos as you go, and make sure your notes are sufficiently detailed/ordered to know which photos are of which documents. Photographing the archive label first, before you photograph anything in the file, helps a lot. I file my images into Google Photos albums every night or two.
  7. Even on a short trip, try and factor in some thinking time midway about what you’ve got so far and whether you might need to rework your plans to make sense of it. For example, if you were planning on a large sample of material from multiple decades but you turn up something with fabulous microhistory potential in 1577 then you need to make a call about whether to continue as planned (and leave 1577 for the future) or whether to gather a load of different contextual sources from 1577 to give yourself the basis for a chapter/article on that. (If you’re a PhD student and find yourself in this scenario I suggest you email your supervisor!)
  8. There’s nothing wrong with changing your strategy in light of what you find. I’ve ended up using military sources a lot more than I’d planned, and that’s been very fruitful. I also had to ditch a vague hope of doing quantitative research when I saw that there was no way to get a usable sample of the relevant sources in the time available. You can never finish everything on an archive trip, but it’s always nice to come back with some things you didn’t predict.
  9. Finally, as we’re here on the internet, social media. Should you tweet/blog/otherwise share your findings? I’ve made some good academic contacts on social media, so it’s worth doing. On this trip alone two different colleagues have asked for more information about stories I tweeted, and I’ve been able to take photos and share them. My general rule is that I tweet quirky fun stuff that I happen across, but I don’t tweet the main arguments of my research (I save those for conference papers and then articles). Nor do I tweet really outstanding individual findings, whether central or not, that might make the press/radio/TV (I save those to press release properly). In fact, the tweets that have got the most attention on this trip have been the ones from my museum visits, not the research, so there you go. Turns out that what Academic Twitter likes best is tweets about itself.


2017: New Year, new projects

2017 will feature some family history

Happy New Year! (You can insert the obligatory “wasn’t 2016 awful” line here.) I’m now a year and four months into working at Swansea University and have some big new projects for the coming year. (And, below, a few thoughts on managing workload and the REF.)

More Radio 3 Essays: In January you’ll be able to hear some very early findings from my new research project on the history of handguns as part of a Radio 3 Essay series on gun culture. And in March there’s a very new historical departure for me: I’ll be at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead with an Essay about my grandparents, who were missionaries in Dhaka and Kolkata from the 1940s to the 60s. This is some way out of my historical comfort zone, but I have done a fair bit of teaching on public perceptions of Britain’s imperial past. A few years into lecturing I’m finding new topics emerging from the teaching side of the job.

New research: There will be more research on that handguns project, which focuses on Italy c. 1500-1550, with a first paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference this spring. And some (more) grant applications in the hope of getting funding for the archive research I really need to do to get this up and running in a bigger way. Fingers crossed. I also have a couple of outstanding articles/chapters from previous projects to write up.

Fiction: For a while now I’ve been playing at writing a novel that’s a spin-off from The Black Prince of Florence. I’m going to finish it in 2017. I have no idea whether it’ll be publishable quality but the process is raising some interesting methodological issues for me about writing history so at the very least I’m hoping for a theory article.

Non-fiction: Yes. I hope to have news about a new non-fiction book project soon… and various other things that are at different stages of development… stay tuned…

Lectures: Besides those for my students, I have public lectures coming up at the British School at Rome (January), in Swansea (March) and in Leeds (September). I list these on my Talks & Events page, so keep an eye out there for details.

Is this an unfeasible workload? I agree it’s an ambitious one. But I’m not planning to finish all the big projects in 2017. And in the past few years I’ve got a lot better at breaking down larger writing tasks into tiny pieces. If I write 200 words a day every day for a year, for example (the equivalent of ten or eleven tweets a day), that’s a full draft (73,000 words) of an academic monograph. And with a 200-word daily target on a project it’s also possible to get ahead of the game by writing more some days, which is psychologically a lot more comforting than setting higher targets and then stressing about getting behind.

Academics reading this post may be wondering about how this pattern of work connects to the demands of the REF. One of the consequences of the huge uncertainty about the rules at the moment (to port or not to port, how many outputs per person, will impact be less linked to outputs, etc.) is that it’s basically impossible to plan. So I decided to stop worrying and work on things that interest me, which is probably, to be honest, the best route to turning out good publications.