On my recent research trip to carry out archival research in New York I brought the following equipment:
- Laptop with Soho Notes software- with required power chords and adapters
- I phone – with specific app for scanning documents, creating PDFs and storing to Dropbox
- Kindle – for reading PDFs in transit
- Digital camera – with card reader and more chargers/adapters etc.
I also brought one properly sharpened pencil and a softback notebook, as reading rooms abhor the hardback kind.
And which item of equipment got the most use over the ten-day trip?
The notebook and pencil.
Not simply because it required no charging and never threatened to run out of battery at odd moments, but it was where my hand automatically went when my brain was processing information. If writing a thesis and finishing a PhD is about asking questions and resolving problems, I realised, you can do a lot worse than slow your brain down and record random thoughts by hand, without any real concern about where the train of thought will bring you or whether the citation is in correct order.
In the New York Public Library, I was lucky enough to get to pore over the notebook Sean O’Casey kept while developing his thoughts on The Silver Tassie. It’s a simple, scarlet-coloured exercise book filled with his elegant, curlicued hand. Alongside scraps of dialogue and character descriptions, he keeps notes about his current reading (Ivanhoe was morbid) and potential titles for plays he hadn’t yet written. Newspaper articles that caught his imagination have been gummed in, sometimes with his own comments. While it may seem a scrapbook of random material, the kernels of his later work are on every page.
Similarly, the notebook of Eva Le Gallienne, director of the Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street struck me with their elegance and coherence. It also dates from the early 1930s, when Irish actress Ria Mooney was a member of the company.
As a director and company manager, her notebook is more practical than ruminative, but she uses it to compare casting suggestions, throw down ideas about sets and possible schedules. The back pages are preserved for personal arrangements, like choosing paint for her new sitting room.
Like many other PhD students, I love the happy-tapping of the laptop keys that comes when the writing is flowing and the ideas are concrete. But if this trip has taught me anything, it’s that putting pencil to paper, slowing down and recording seemingly disparate thoughts can get you to a more meaningful place with astonishing rapidity.
In fact, the idea for this blog entry came from just such a scrawled note …
By the by, further adventures from my research trip are recorded here: