Tuning in to Soundwriting

Resounding History: A Rhetoric of Sonic Historiography (in Two Parts)

by Jonathan W. Stone

Part 1: Sonic Rhetorical Methods: Writing About Writing About Sonic History (cont.)

Navigating Research in the Archive(s)

1. Archives are crucial to but rarely inspire robust historical research projects on their own.

There are always exceptions, but generally I don't recommend arriving at, say, the Huntington Library archives in Los Angeles or the Newberry collection in Chicago (or at your own city or university library's archives for that matter) without a plan. The same is true for digital archives. Though they are more accessible, it is usually a mistake to think that if you point your internet browser in the direction of an online archive, you'll stumble across something you'll soon be passionate about. Archives are vast and their contents are usually hidden in boxes behind closed doors or in databases that require the right conversation with a librarian or combination of search terms to find. For those embarking on historical research for the first time, instead of visiting an archive thinking that a topic will simply materialize, visit an archive with a plan to speak to a librarian or archivist about the collection(s) there. If you're not going to be in the physical archive itself, archive professionals should be able to answer questions about their online holdings as well and a short inquisitive email can go a long way towards finding interesting materials. What constitutes "interesting" is up to the researcher, and leads us to my next bit of advice:

2. Sustainable research projects begin from a place of care.

First-year and other writing instruction sometimes misses the vital—even crucial—point that research needs some energy behind it if it is going to be meaningful. Students, it turns out, are like us: they have topics, issues, and events that they do and do not care about. The best student research projects I've encountered are born of a personal exigence, a need to dig deeper into an issue or topic that affects the researcher directly. In a book-length project titled The Meaningful Writing Project, Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner (2016) came to a similar conclusion. They argued that meaningful writing or research projects encourage students to explore topics that they already have a relationship to and, by extension, "offer students opportunities for agency; for engagement with instructors, peers, and materials; and for learning that connects to previous experiences and passions and to future aspirations and identities" (p. 4). There may be some pedagogical convenience to providing students with predetermined research topics, but my experience is that fostering projects that come from genuine interests is always more effective. I even begin many of my classes with a short survey asking students to name three things: (1) a topic or subject that they care deeply about, (2) a topic or subject that they know they should care about but don't yet, and (3) something that everyone else seems to care about that they just don't understand. The three little moments of invention are a wellspring and create an opportunity for students to move toward unfamiliar ideas, obscured histories, and alternate ways of knowing that inspire broader, deeper, and more responsibly engaged empathetic care. To restate: Good, sustainable, research projects emerge from already in-process interests.

3. Archives are only as useful as they are familiar.

The trick, then, is finding an archive that is amenable to those interests. Becoming familiar with major national and state archives is a good place to start. But how does one find an archive that has resources that will be useful to your project? A Google search is always a nice place to begin, but often researchers don't yet know enough about their subject to query Google in a way that will lead them to a site where physical or digital materials are located. Pardon the obvious statement, but since archives exist in order to aid researchers and scholars interested in specific people, places, and ideas, books and articles on those subjects can be a great place to start. The authors of those books and articles will always reveal their sources.

LGBTQ+ Archives: Transcript

[Phil Cook & His Feet's (2011b) "Juniper" from Hungry Mother Blues plays in the background.]

Stone: For example, let's say you're interested in the history and political rhetorics of the LGBTQ+ movement. A quick look at a scholarly history of LGBTQ+ activism in San Francisco reveals that there is an extensive Harvey Milk archive at the San Francisco Public Library. A quick Google and—yep—28 cubic feet of political papers, photographs, speeches, and correspondence. The Milk archive, however, is not available digitally—a tough reality if you're not close to the Bay Area and want to include Milk as part of your project. The University of Southern California, however, does have a large online archive on the subject and it's called ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives. The ONE archive has documents and photographs, but it also has 169 audio and video objects: interviews, lectures, panel discussions, and even video of dance and drag competitions. In some ways, this other resource may be better than the first. Milk, for all his importance to the LGBTQ+ movement, is a highly visible subject—lots has been written about him. In the USC archive, however, there are four video interviews with Donna Smith, a lesser-known but important lesbian activist and author—all available to watch right there on the internet. A deeper search from there reveals that the Donna M. Smith papers are available at the Online Archive of California, which seems promising at first—but then, darn, the materials are listed online, but you have to be there in person to view them. And that pretty much sums up the joys and frustrations of archival work with all of its starts and stops.

Speaking of LGBTQ+ archival scholarship, Jean Bessette's (2016) Computers and Composition article "Audio, Archives, and the Affordance of Listening in a Pedagogy of 'Difference'" discusses the ways her students worked through their understanding of queer and feminist identity. They did so by listening to recordings housed in the GLBT Historical Society's online archive called the "Gayback Machine" (which is a play on the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine," which I'll mention again in the next audio segment). Bessette encouraged her students, most of whom didn't identify as queer or feminist, toward the "openness" of rhetorical listening, a concept championed by Krista Ratcliffe (2005). Many came to a new understanding of both the people represented in the archive and their values and motivations.5 5 For more from Bessette on the queer archive, see "An Archive of Anecdotes: Raising Lesbian Consciousness after the Daughters of Bilitis" (Bessette, 2013). As such, sonic archives can be a great place to encounter and work through difference and can help us work toward building new familiarities where they didn't exist before.

4. Archives are consulted (or created!) to aid in the process of composing new histories about subjects that researchers care about.

A researcher's job is to assemble primary and secondary sources and, while someone may have already done that work, it is just as likely that they have not. Indeed, sometimes the archive needed doesn't yet exist. It may be equally exciting and daunting to realize that the most complete archive on a given subject may be the one the researcher has assembled.

Smashing Pumpkins Aside: Transcript

[Rockabye Baby's (2007) "Tonight, Tonight" from Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of the Smashing Pumpkins plays in the background.]

Stone: For example, I have been thinking for years about pitching a book for the 33 1/3 series published by Bloomsbury. 33 1/3 books are short, 100-page close listening reports on an influential music album, and I've all but decided to write one about The Smashing Pumpkins's classic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The reasons? Well, I care about that record. I was 17 when it came out. It kind of defines the latter half of the '90s for me. I'm also absolutely flummoxed by Billy Corgan, whose immense talent and sharp intellect have seemed undermined in recent years by his career, business, and political choices and statements. I thought that would make for an interesting dichotomy to explore.

Anyway, there is no Smashing Pumpkins repository in any national or local archive—not yet, anyway. So where do I start? The record itself is the obvious first place, and I actually don't own a physical copy anymore, so I can start there. But I also recently discovered a treasure trove of magazines from that era in my basement—a "keep-box" from high school. In it, I found several Rolling Stone and Spin magazines, among others, each of which contains interviews with the band from that era. It's a micro-Smashing Pumpkins archive and it's been sitting in my basement for 20 years! What I don't have, fan sites on the internet have me covered with bibliographies, and sometimes they've even transcribed old articles and interviews. And I also have access to dozens of bootleg concerts from 1995 and 1996.

You do too because they are available at archive.org, which is "a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more" (that's a quote from their front page). The Internet Archive, which also hosts the Wayback Machine I mentioned in a previous audio clip, has what it claims: millions of resources and a lot of now-defunct websites. It's massive, and because it's massive it helps to illustrate my earlier point about how archives—and especially digital archives—are generally too big to just start poking around in without a sense of some sort of direction. You need something akin to a teenage obsession first. An itch to scratch. A reason to start the search, and once you've found the reason—that care—the research can begin.

In determining how to engage with an archive, more advice from Barbara E. L'Eplattenier (2009) rings both true and useful: "because archival historical work is often so unique—each archive, each situation, each study is different, with different resources, different access, different constraints—generalizing about archival work can be difficult, especially for the individual researcher" (p. 63). Building on this and hearkening back to Eodice, Geller, and Lerner (2016), the goal here is to nurture the researcher's agency and authority. Because even precurated archives present limitless possibilities and constraints, they can be key to helping students move from the important but limited position of resource respondent/reporter ("here's what this source is saying") to the more authoritative space of researcher/agent ("here's how this source or combination of sources strengthens my argument"). Archives require researchers to make choices, to construct stories from limited resources, to be imaginative, and to figure out how to do justice to the people and events depicted through the story of the archive. This last step, or what might be described as agent-transfer ("here's how my thesis is complicated, nuanced, or contradicted by the material in the archive"), is particularly important to sonic archival work, as I'll elaborate on next.