Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

Samuel_houston
Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

star-wars-1724901__340
Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

cannon
I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.

 

6 thoughts on “Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

  1. Good luck on the hunt! It’s amazing how elusive historical documents can be! And what gems can be found in unlikely places. Last year I managed to get a lot of librarians to nerd out over a document buried in New Zealand’s National Library, which I knew they had, the ‘Ship’s Book’ for HMS New Zealand, a century-old warship. When I say ‘document’, I mean a kind of folio-filing system in a huge wooden box. Apparently nobody had ordered it up in corporate memory, and when I called on it (having first looked at it 30 years ago when I wrote my thesis) it emerged on its own individual trolley, and all the librarians, including New Zealand’s head government librarian, had to come out to have a look at it. Largest single item in their collection, apparently. Truth be told I pretty much nerded out over it too, it was an amazing artefact of itself, quite apart from the information in it. Hopefully the diary you’re looking for will be too!

    1. That sounds like fun! When I was in grad school I once had a librarian explain that she had the best job in the world because she got to lose herself in all the research and didn’t have to write the papers.

  2. Samuel Hall

    You’re having too much fun, Sarah. I love research, but when I have a deadline, I sometimes blur the fine line between getting something almost right versus getting it right.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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