Reading Other People’s Mail

Since 1975, I have made probably 15 trips to the Archives of the History of American Psychology, in Akron, Ohio. My first is the most memorable. In 1974 I was a young assistant professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University. That year I presented a paper on the history of psychology at the American Psychological Association annual meeting, based on some research I had done at the University of Nebraska Archives.

Marion McPherson was in the audience and approached me after my talk, informing me that there were materials at Akron relevant to my topic. I explained to her that my salary at NWU would not allow me to make a trip to Akron and she responded by suggesting that I apply for a research fellowship they offered each year. I did and was awarded the grand sum of $350 for study at the Archives.

At the time, my wife and I and our two children existed on my salary, which was about $28 a month more than the income level that would have allowed us to get food stamps. In the summer of 1975 I used that $350 to spend three weeks in Akron, traveling there by bus from Lincoln, Nebraska, and staying in a dorm for $4 a night. I carefully budgeted my meals and spent about $40 on photocopies (which would have been around a thousand pages at 4 cents a copy).

That trip was a watershed event in my life. It gave me the materials (and some confidence) I needed to make a career change, from experimental psychologist to historian of psychology. From the materials gathered on that first trip I published an article on the first psychology museum in America. I also wrote about a secret society of experimental psychologists, a group called the Psychological Round Table, that began meeting in 1936 and continues to this day, still getting rid of individuals when they reach 40 years of age because they are, of course, “over the hill” intellectually.

Several years ago I received a National Science Foundation grant for about $700,000. I was pleased to get that funding, but I can assure you that it did not bring the excitement that I felt when Akron gave me $350.

My subsequent trips to the Archives have proved fruitful as well. I always go there with several research questions in mind, but while there I spend some of my time just browsing, looking at the inventories of new collections to see if anything sparks my interest. One of the dangers of archival work is what I call documenta distracta, a common archival disease. You go to an archive to work in a particular collection but you find yourself caught up in other lives and other stories that are difficult to ignore. Projects that should have taken three days then require a week. I used to get frustrated by giving in to such distractions; now I accept them as one of the joys of archival research.

[Editor's note: The following is excerpted Benjamin's talk he titled "Archival Adventures: The Joy of Reading Other People's Mail."]

The best times for me professionally are the hours I spend in archives. There are never enough such opportunities, thus I treasure every one.

On the day the archival work begins, I am there 15 minutes before the door opens During the course of the day, other researchers will wander in and out, spending an hour or so in a particular collection. But not me; I am there for the duration, leaving only when one of the archivists says to me, “we really have to close now.”

Historian of psychology Josef Brozek has described archival research as a high-risk/high-gain operation. It is difficult to predict what you will find in such work. Days may be spent with no substantial finds. Indeed, an entire archival trip may produce little of value for a project, although I would say that has never happened for me. This high-risk/high-gain nature of archival work is no doubt part of the drama that makes it so exciting. There is intrigue in every visit.

[O]ne typically begins in one archival collection and then pursues related materials through other archives, following wherever the leads suggest going. Collections are rarely, if ever, complete. Some documents relating to important questions are almost always missing. As geographer-sociologist Michael Hill wrote in his 1993 book, Archival Strategies and Techniques: “Each archival visit is a journey into an unknown realm that rewards its visitors with challenging puzzles and unexpected revelations.”

For me that captures the magic well. This kind of work is there for you as well. No doubt there are archives in your own back yard: in your university, in your local historical society, in a state hospital, and so forth. So, if you have a few spare hours one afternoon, you might just wander in and read somebody else’s mail. But I warn you that the high may be something that you find you cannot do without.

Observer Vol.15, No.7 September, 2002

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