Archival Research at the American University of Beirut

July 16, 2015 § 1 Comment

So, the whole reason why I went to Lebanon this summer was to do archival research at the American University of Beirut.  Today, I’m going to tell you about that!


AUB was founded in the 1860s as the Syrian Protestant College by American missionaries.  The missionaries, after hitting up the ludicrously wealthy American philanthropists who they had schmoozed with at Yale/married into the families of, had obtained a pretty gigantic sum of money in railroad bonds to endow the place, which the missionaries used to buy a lot of land.  Over the years, a lot more money came in, from student and hospital fees, rent for local shopkeepers, and donations from the Rockefeller Foundation, wealthy alumni in the Lebanese Diaspora, and, in recent years, Saudi Princes.  As a result, its seaside campus is really, really nice.



So it has lovely ivy-covered old buildings…


And glorious athletic facilities which sprawl under Beirut’s azure summer sky, beside the even bluer waters of the Mediterranean Sea…


And policy studies institutes which resemble spaceships…


And palatial dormitories which very postmodernly try to merge classic features of Beirut’s Ottoman architecture with the modernist straight-line stylings of Le Courbusier…


And, of course, the best glades around for playing cards with your friends, chain-smoking, and showing off your rad hipster beard.

So, given all this place’s sunshiny charm, I spend most of my days struggling to decipher Ottoman building permits or American missionaries’ scrawled handwriting.  The superficial rhythm of my days is fairly similar– head to the archive, ask one of the archivists for another box from the list you took down after comprehensively reviewing the collection’s card catalog, go with the archivist to get the box from the giant rolling metal racks where all of them are stored, leave the box in the archivist’s office while taking out one folder of documents at a time to look through, reading them over, translating them, sometimes taking notes or writing down quotes or, when permitted, photographing a document.

All of this sounds like drudgery.  It’s not.  This is because what I’m really doing in the archive is a lot like what an archaeologist is doing at a dig site: using a few small fragments of the past to reconstruct a how a past community functioned and thought.  And so, looking at documents and taking photos no more constitute the whole of my research than digging holes and putting pieces of pottery into carefully labeled plastic bags constitute the archaeologist’s.

When I read a piece of text, I’m working on about six different levels at the same time.  The first is literal: “What events do people talk about in this letter?  What sort of relationships do people say they have with one another?  Where do they say they are?  How much money do they say that things cost?”  The second is inferential: “What things are known to both the text’s writer and their audience, but not to me?  What possibilities can we eliminate because they contradict the information available?”  The third is what I’ll call subtextual: “What are the writer’s attitudes?  What assumptions and ideologies and preferences shape what they say?”  The foruth is intertextual: “What other pieces of writing does this one refer to?  How might it be influenced by those pieces of writing?”  The fifth is metatextual: “Why was this piece of writing produced?  Who is its intended audience? ”  The sixth is about the archive itself: “Why was this object saved?  What other related objects might be lost?  How should we take them into account?)

Answering all of these questions, document after document, helps me answer bigger questions: “How did the community I’m studying function?  How did its members think?  How did these things change over time?  And how does all of this relate to broader historical or social-scientific issues?”  If something I read tells me about those broader questions, I document it, with summaries, photos, relevant quotes, and notes on my non-superficial readings of the texts.  I also document major systematic insights as I have them.

When I get home, I’ll work on turning those insights into conference papers or articles.

So, that is basically how my summer works.


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