Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

Amanda Lanzillo: Archival Research as Fieldwork: Reflections on Small and Under-utilized Indian Archives

Over the course of fifteen months of dissertation research in Indian archives, I found that the way archival research was discussed abstractly among historians rarely matched up with my own experiences in the archives. Instead, I often borrowed vocabulary from my friends and colleagues in fields like anthropology, political science, sociology, and other social sciences. “Fieldwork,” a term less commonly used among historians, seemed to fit my archival process, which was reliant on personal relationships and informants, and only rarely involved formal catalogues or organized records collections.

My research focuses on nineteenth-century artisan practices and patronage in Muslim-led Indian “princely” or “native” states, quasi-autonomous polities under British oversight. I analyze the intersection of ideas of Islamic modernity with local attempts to reform the training and work of industrial artisans, including blacksmiths, stonemasons, and carpenters. I rely primarily on Indian-authored sources, mostly in Urdu and Persian, which I collected through trips to eighteen different archives, libraries, and small collections around India. Finding and situating my sources required me to travel to the cities and towns where the protagonists of my dissertation lived and worked, moving out of major central archives like the National Archives of India.

For me, the archives were a participatory experience. Several of the documents and texts that are most central to my dissertation were found after days of digging through the dust covered back room of a small, local library in Hyderabad. There, the librarian and I both perched on the floor, pulling books and dusting them off, passing them back and forth as we discussed their contents and potential use. In another memorable instance, a local volunteer librarian could not find many materials that fit my topic in the library that he ran, but invited me back to his father’s house, where the elderly family patriarch immediately pulled out several relevant texts from his own personal collection. Librarians, archivists, and the keepers of personal collections thus became not only my friends and mentors, but also active participants in my research; the directions I chose to explore changed over time based on the quality of my personal relationships.  

I also faced heartbreaking defeats and setbacks in the archives. On one occasion, I spent a week negotiating with archive employees to get permission to see unorganized and uncatalogued bundles of records of a specific state department from mid-nineteenth century, only to have several of the documents disintegrate upon touch. On another, the dust and dirt that had accumulated on my materials made me physically ill for over a week. Still, as I write my dissertation, divorcing the contents of the materials from the contexts in which I worked with them seems impossible. The afterlives, preservation, and continued transmission of artisan industrial histories shapes my very ability to engage with and write about them.  

Despite the challenges, I believe that focusing on small, underutilized archives dependent on personal relationships improved the quality of my research. My exploration of the spaces in which knowledge about my dissertation topic had been preserved, and my engagement with the individuals responsible for preserving it continue to inform my work as I move into writing and editing. However, centering alternative and vernacular archival voices means that, at least in the case of South Asia, we may need to reconsider some of the skills considered central to historical work. In particular, it means talking more openly about our social and cultural positionalities as researchers in the archives. As a young, female, foreign historian, I wish I had more explicitly considered the best ways to negotiate the predominantly male intellectual and cultural spaces in which I worked before entering the archives. These types of considerations seem to receive more attention in social science fields, and I hope to continue to borrow from their discourses and practices as I move forward in my research.

Amanda Lanzillo is a fourth year PhD candidate in History at Indiana University. Her dissertation is tentatively titled. “'Between Islam and Industry: Patronage and artisanship colonial-era India, 1857-1919.”

robert shepherdComment