This August, I travelled to Durham, North Carolina, to read the Dorothy Allison papers at the Sallie Bingham Center in the Rubinstein Library’s archives at Duke University. The Sallie Bingham Center has a wide variety of archives on women’s writing and political involvement in the US, with a particular emphasis on the US south. Because a number of these files are restricted, I did not know in advance what I would find and how it would relate to my broader PhD research. This was my first experience of archival research, and I was not sure of the procedures and outcomes.
Both when I was preparing my travel plans and in person when I arrived, I found the staff at the Rubinstein Library to be incredibly helpful, directing me to the appropriate material, and welcoming, which helped me navigate my uncertainty about the process. Half of the folders I read over the week were Allison’s journals spanning a five year period between 1991-1996. The combination of this and the nature of the research— wherein I was reading material the contents of which were unknown to me, and hence where I was not searching for any particular element— made it difficult to remain in an academic headspace, rather than become emotionally and narratively involved in Allison’s life as it progressed over those years.
This in itself proved rather interesting to me, because my field of research is American women’s autobiographies. While these journals were never published or meant for public consumption, and hence are not what would be traditionally considered autobiography, the differences and similarities between these works and autobiography were noteworthy and will be informative in my approach to the field within my dissertation. I found that, while there were marked differences in both form and content, they way that Allison organised and wrote about her daily life echoed some of the narrativisation that occurs in autobiographical writing, and reflected some of the underlying ideological and philosophical currents within the field of American autobiography in particular.
Spending a week in Durham proved tricky in terms of getting around. While I’m used to being able to walk or rely on frequent and effective public transport, Durham, like most American cities, is somewhat sprawled out and does not always have sidewalk or pedestrian crossings. While the city is more pedestrian-friendly than most, and while there are some busses, it is mush easier to get around by car. I was lucky enough to have my husband with me during my research, who was able to drive me to and from the library and to do any other necessary trips, such as grocery shopping.
On the social side, I was able to stay with a family friend who is involved with the university, and hence gained greater insight into the university as an institution and the city as it is for its residents. As a researcher of American literature, these opportunities to experience American culture first-hand are invaluable, and I look forward to writing up my research findings.