BLOG: Keeping up a Research Agenda when Life Gets in the Way by Gretchen Pierce
Gretchen Pierce is Associate Professor of Latin American History at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She is the co-editor of Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History (University of Arizona Press, 2014) with Áurea Toxqui, and has also published (or will soon publish) two articles, three book chapters, one encyclopedia article, and thirteen academic blog posts on temperance, beer, and advertising in Mexico. In addition to serving as an editor on H-LatAm and founding this blog, she is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled, “Altered States: Mexico’s Anti-Alcohol, State-Building, and Identity-Formation Projects, 1910-1940.”
Gretchen Pierce is also the editor of this blog and she’d love to have you contribute. Perhaps you’re interested in describing your experience at particular archives, libraries, or digital repositories. Perhaps you work at one of these institutions; you could describe your materials relevant to Latin America, the Caribbean, and/or borderlands. The blog also features how-to posts like this one which focus on bigger topics such as how to co-publish, how to come up with a second book project, or how to do transnational research. As long as posts stay focused on research issues relevant to scholars of Latin America, Caribbean, or borderlands, they can be included in the blog. Please email her at email@example.com or fill out this Google Form.
Keeping up a Research Agenda when Life Gets in the Way
In 2018, when I was planning my first research trip to Mexico after having had my daughter, I panicked. My family was not able to come and I could not imagine how I was going to be away for a whole month. And what about once I was able to start my next project, and needed to go away for months at a time, maybe even a year? Was this the end of my career? Perhaps you have felt the same way. Or perhaps there are other things keeping you from attaining rockstar research status like you envisioned in graduate school. Your story may involve aging parents, other family members with health issues, a heavy teaching and service load, or a school with financial problems, meaning there is less and less money each year for conferences, research trips, or sabbaticals. Or maybe you fall into several categories—I know I find myself in all but one of them.
My daughter is now seven, and if my bio (or this blog) is any hint, you can tell it was not, in fact, the end of my career. I solicited advice from academic friends on Facebook and read an article by Barbara Weinstein, a well-known Brazilianist and former American Historical Association president who also faced a number of challenges but obviously managed to succeed. As a result, I went on that trip (I just decided to come home for a long weekend in the middle), a second, two-week trip the same year, and have been away on multiple faculty-led study-abroad trips since then, as well. I will admit: I am no rockstar. I haven’t even attained the academic research equivalent of social media influencer. But, whether through brief travel to archives, doing research digitally, getting the help of on-site research assistants, or just making time to plug away at my projects, I have managed to forward my research agenda in spite of the limitations imposed by motherhood, other realities of life, and work. And since I have this blog as an outlet, I figured I’d share what I’ve learned (and point you to other excellent guest bloggers on this site who provide similar advice). Perhaps you can put all this information to even better use than I have. Also be on the lookout for the post following this one by Christopher Menking which will talk about similar issues from the perspective of a U.S.-Mexican borderlands historian.
One of the biggest challenges—and biggest joys—of life as a Latin Americanist or Caribbeanist (especially if you do not live in one of these places) is the travel. An option, no matter the length of your stay, is to bring your significant other, child(ren), and any other family members that you might otherwise miss. I know several people who did this when they needed a year abroad—and when those family members did not already know Spanish or Portuguese, they learned a great deal.
If you are like me (or Weinstein), sadly this arrangement may not work out for you. But I think too many of us fall into what I’ll call the dissertation trap. Or maybe that’s just me. I always imagined that my second and subsequent books would begin the way my first one did: with as close to a year abroad of research as possible. The article by Barbara Weinstein encouraged me to think, instead, of smaller research trips carried out over longer periods. I can definitely manage a month or so at a time, or maybe longer stays with breaks in the middle if need be. I also have combined conferences and research trips, when possible. I actually ended up going on a second research trip in 2018 when I discovered that that year’s Reunión Internacional de Historiadores de México (International Historians of Mexico Conference) was meeting in Guadalajara. The previous year I had begun a new portion of my temperance project, described in more detail below, that considered how beer producers fought back against the anti-alcohol campaign, and I wanted to do the same for tequila producers. Going to Jalisco was a must. Luckily, the Reunión was held the week before my fall break. I was able to expand a three-day conference trip into a two-week research trip. By using my two personal days as well as the break, I didn’t have to cancel too many classes. Additionally, I was able to save money, since a conference grant paid for the airfare and three days of hotel, food, and public transportation. I applied for a supplemental grant from my Dean which helped to fund most of the rest of the expenses.
It may go without saying, but before you go on any research trip, whether it’s a brief one or one where you have the luxury of staying for a month or more, take measures to maximize your time. Be sure to figure out if archives and libraries are open when you’re planning to be there and that they have (or are likely to have) the sources you need to view. Thanks to a lot of time on websites, plus emails and WhatsApp messages before I left on my trip to Guadalajara, I was able to visit (admittedly briefly) the Archivo Histórico Municipal de Guadalajara, the Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco “Juan Jose Arreola,” the Instituto Cultural Ignacio Dávila Garibi, and the Archivo Histórico Municipal de Tequila (see Figures 1-3). A weekend tour at a local distillery also allowed me to see how tequila is produced today, with some explanations about older techniques as well (see Figures 4-5). Another word of advice: check the hours of the places you are planning on going—if there are repositories that close early, you may be able to visit two in a day. For the Mexico City trip, I visited the Archivo General de la Nación in the mornings/early afternoons and the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada later in the day. Both the Hemeroteca Nacional de México and the Centro Cultural Manuel Gómez Marin allowed for longer work days (see Figures 6-10). Finally, if an archive allows you to take pictures or scan the material that you’re viewing, do it! That way you can use your time abroad to collect material, and you can review it once you’re back home. (And you may want to try out Tropy to help manage your massive collection of images).
Figure 1: the Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco “Juan Jose Arreola,” in Zapopan. Photo by author.
Figure 3: Archivo Histórico Municipal de Tequila. Photo by author.
Figure 4: train for tour of tequila hacienda and distillery. Photo by author.
Figure 5: the jimador (harvester) using his coa (spade-like tool) to slice pencas (spiny leaves) off the piña (heart of the maguey resembling a pineapple). Photo by author.
Figure 6: the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico was once a jail. Photo by author.
Figure 7: the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada is located inside the Antiguo Oratorio de San Felipe Neri. Photo by author.
Figure 8: inside the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. Murals by Russian-Mexican painter Vlady. Photo by author.
Another way to maintain an active research agenda is to see if there are archival materials about Latin America and the Caribbean closer to home (if home is not in either of these places). Can any of your sources be found at the Library of Congress, the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin, the Huntington Library, or any other repositories in the United States, Europe, or wherever you may live? In addition to the ones mentioned, Research Corner has also covered the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the Field Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s Pacific Region Records Center, the Rockefeller Archive Center, and the UNESCO Archive.
Furthermore, it has become increasingly easy to find digital sources. As Research Corner has been documenting, there are many repositories that are either fully digitalized, like the Digital Library of the Caribbean or the Biblioteca Digital de Bogotá, or that have a significant online presence, like the Portal de Archivos Españoles. Others, such as the Archivo General de la Nación (Perú) or the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú, allow users to request that a source be digitized, if it is not already, for a small fee. This aids both the researcher as well as the institution. I personally made a huge research breakthrough thanks to a digital repository, the Hemeroteca Nacional Digital de México (HNDM). In 2017, I was asked to join a conference panel at RMCLAS (Rocky Mountain Council on Latin American Studies) that looked at advertisements. During my dissertation research on temperance, I had stumbled upon some beer ads in newspapers. I thought they were interesting, so I took pictures of them, but at the time they seemed irrelevant to my work and they did not make it into my dissertation. In the process of writing the conference paper, I realized I had not looked at nearly enough to draw any reliable conclusions. I turned to HNDM to fill the gap. After I completed the conference paper, I decided that the material was in fact relevant to my overall temperance project; this led to the two research trips in 2018, a new chapter for my monograph, and a publication in an international journal.
One final area to consider is what to do when something needs to be done in person at an archive and, for whatever reason, you cannot go yourself. I have had this happen twice. The first was when I found a book that could not be interlibrary loaned and I could not justify a whole trip to look at it (especially since I could not even find a Table of Contents and wasn’t sure it would end up being helpful). I noticed that the book was at the University of Arizona library, my alma mater. I asked my former advisor to recommend a graduate student who would be able to help me. In another case, as I will detail in two upcoming posts, I needed to acquire publication-quality images and permissions to publish them, but I was unable to get away to do it. I turned to a Mexican professor friend who lives and works in the United States, knowing that she had hired a research assistant in the past. This friend had also contacted her Mexican alma mater and asked to be connected with a responsible history student. He had done good work for my friend and she provided me his email and WhatsApp account. In both cases, I was able to work out a payment system that was mutually acceptable to the students and me.
If you are not sure whether you need or want a research assistant, let me sell you on it. In the case of the book in Tucson, it was not just a matter of photographing a single chapter. I was looking for information about the graphic artists and advertising agencies who had produced beer and tequila ads. I had no idea if they would be included in the book, but I had a list of artist and advertising company names that I had seen on ads. I needed the student to peruse the book to see if they were included, or if there was anything at all about beer, tequila, or even pulque (a distilled beverage made from maguey). In the second case, finding the images that I needed professional copies of was not always easy. Although I gave my assistant detailed reference information, one temperance pamphlet had been refiled since I had first seen it and so at first it seemed as if it were lost. But my assistant searched box by box until he found it; a busy archivist may not have been able to look so thoroughly. The process of getting permissions was not easy, either, as one of my future posts will discuss. Since phone calls and emails were not always effective in getting information, having someone who could physically travel to archives and businesses when necessary was essential. If you’re not sure how to find a research assistant and/or don’t work with graduate students who will already be abroad doing research, ask around. Your colleagues at archives, libraries, and universities may know a good candidate. It is essential to have someone who can speak and read whatever languages are needed for your investigations at the least; familiarity with archival research is an added bonus.
At the end of the day, archival research will never be “easy,” even if you work at a R1 Research Institution with plenty of funding and have few family ties that keep you grounded in a country other than the one(s) you research. Hopefully, however, this post and the links to dozens of others on Research Corner will help you to attain whatever level of academic research fame you hope to achieve.
 Barbara Weinstein is not the only academic who has discussed this issue. Although it was written after I had my 2018 “crisis,” Lisa Pinley Covert also has an excellent blog post about how to develop a research plan with the realities of family life in mind. See: Covert, “Tips for Transnational Research,” in Research Corner/Rincón del Investigador/Canto do Pesquisador (hereafter Research Corner), January 17, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/7135478/tips-transnational-research-lisa-pinley-covert, accessed June 30, 2023.
 If you did something like this and would like to blog about your experience, we’d love to hear about it.
 For more on how to start a second book project, see: Elizabeth S. Manley, “Constructing a Variegated Research Approach to 20th Century Transnational Caribbean and Women’s History, Part I: Building a Second Book,” in Research Corner, April 4, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/7525550/blog-constructing-variegated-research-approach-20th, accessed June 30, 2023.
 See also: Covert, “Tips.”
 For excellent discussions of the AHMG that I wish had been written before I went, see: Jason H. Dormady, “Archivo Histórico Municipal de Guadalajara: Part 1 - The Collections,” in Research Corner, February 12, 2023, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/12358843/blog-archivo-hist%C3%B3rico-municipal-de-guadalajara-part-1, accessed June 30, 2023; and Dormady, “Archivo Histórico Municipal de Guadalajara: Part 2 –Navigation and Anticipating Challenges,” in Research Corner, March 5, 2023, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/12505537/blog-archivo-hist%C3%B3rico-municipal-de-guadalajara-part-2-, accessed June 30, 2023.
 For advice on the AGN, see: Edward Anthony Polanco, “Archivo General de la Nación: Mexico’s Black Palace,” in Research Corner, February 3, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/5812320/archivo-general-de-la-naci%C3%B3n-mexico%E2%80%99s-black-palace, accessed June 30, 2023. In a future post, Claudio Escandon Mendiola and I will be discussing the process of obtaining publication-quality images and permissions to publish them from the AGN.
 For more on the CCMGM, see: Angélica Oliver Pesqueira, “Centro Cultural Manuel Gómez Morin Archivo y Biblioteca, la segunda parte,” in Research Corner, March 2, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/5951955/centro-cultural-manuel-g%C3%B3mez-morin-archivo-y-biblioteca, accessed June 30, 2023; Oliver Pesqueira, “Centro Cultural Manuel Gómez Morin Archivo y Biblioteca, la tercera parte,” in Research Corner, March 15, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6013503/centro-cultural-manuel-g%C3%B3mez-morin-archivo-y-biblioteca, accessed June 30, 2023; Gretchen Pierce, “A Small Archival Gem: the Centro Cultural Manuel Gómez Morin in Mexico City, Mexico,” in Research Corner, March 30, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6075465/small-archival-gem-centro-cultural-manuel-g%C3%B3mez-morin, accessed June 30, 2023. In two future posts, Claudio Escandon Mendiola and I will be discussing the process of obtaining publication-quality images from HNM. Note: the HNM is not authorized to issue publication permissions.
 Douglas McRae, “Tropy and Digital Photo Management for Latin American Historians (Part I),” in Research Corner, May 21, 2023, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/12858751/blog-tropy-and-digital-photo-management-latin-american, accessed June 30, 2023; and McRae, “Tropy and Digital Photo Management for Latin American Historians (Part II),” in Research Corner, June 6, 2023, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/12874500/blog-tropy-and-digital-photo-management-latin-american, accessed June 30, 2023.
 In a future post, I will be discussing the process of obtaining publication-quality images and permissions to publish them from the BLAC.
 Christopher Menking, “Art and Archive: Research at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art,” in Research Corner, January 22, 2023, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/12236490/blog-art-and-archive-research-amon-carter-museum, accessed June 30, 2023; Joshua Henkin, “An Introduction to Resources—Especially Botanical Resources—at the Field Museum for Latin American Researchers,” in Research Corner, September 30, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6432454/introduction-resources%E2%80%94especially-botanical-resources%E2%80%94, accessed June 30, 2023; Jonathan Saxon, “Aztec Archeology to the Mexican Revolution: A Digital Photohistory at the Getty Research Institute,” in Research Corner, May 22, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6165338/aztec-archeology-mexican-revolution-digital-photohistory, accessed June 30, 2023; Saxon, “Art and Archeology of Mexico: More Digital Resources from the Getty Research Institute,” in Research Corner, June 7, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6186114/art-and-archeology-mexico-more-digital-resources-getty, accessed June 30, 2023; Saxon, “Appendix: Getty Research Institute Digital Resources for Latin America,” in Research Corner, June 7, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6186144/appendix-getty-research-institute-digital-resources, accessed June 30, 2023; Justin Castro, “The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology,” in Research Corner, November 7, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/8920987/blog-linda-hall-library-science-engineering-and, accessed June 30, 2023; Andrae Marak and Laura Tuennerman, “Co-Researching and Authoring Across National Borders, Part I,” in Research Corner, September 27, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6493540/co-researching-and-authoring-across-national-borders, accessed June 30, 2023; David Carey, Jr., “Transnational Archival Research in the Americas, Part II,” in Research Corner, November 22, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6835376/transnational-archival-research-americas-part-ii-david, accessed June 30, 2023; Covert, “The UNESCO Archive: A Brief Introduction to the Physical and Digital Repositories,” in Research Corner, January 31, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/7200573/unesco-archive-brief-introduction-physical-and-digital, accessed June 30, 2023. Tuennerman and Marak briefly discuss not only the NARA Pacific archive, but several others across the United States in: “Co-Researching and Authoring Across National Borders, Part II: The Benefits and Challenges of Co-Authoring,” in Research Corner, October 11, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6561659/co-researching-and-authoring-across-national-borders; accessed June 30, 2023.
 Kiran Baldeo, “Unlocking dLOC: A Guide to the Digital Library of the Caribbean: Part One,” in Research Corner, April 24, 2022, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/10169470/blog-unlocking-dloc-guide-digital-library-caribbean, accessed June 30, 2023; Baldeo, “Unlocking dLOC: A Guide to the Digital Library of the Caribbean: Part Two,” in Research Corner, May 15, 2022, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/10260237/blog-unlocking-dloc-guide-digital-library-caribbean, accessed June 30, 2023; Daniela Scarleth Camacho Bernal and Juan Pablo Angarita Bernal, “Formas de conocer la Biblioteca Digital de Bogotá,” in Research Corner, June 13, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/7836501/blog-formas-de-conocer-la-biblioteca-digital-de-bogot%C3%A1, accessed June 30, 2023; William Cohoon, “Navigating the Portal de Archivos Españoles,” in Research Corner, July 11, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/7919984/blog-navigating-portal-de-archivos-espa%C3%B1oles-william, accessed June 30, 2023. See also: Eileen Karmy, “Digital Archiving on Chilean Music and Musicians, Part 1,” in Research Corner, April 12, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6109921/digital-archiving-chilean-music-and-musicians-part-1, accessed June 30, 2023; Karmy, “Digital Archiving on Chilean Music and Musicians, Part 2,” in Research Corner, April 26, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6133115/digital-archiving-chilean-music-and-musicians-part-2; accessed June 30, 2023; Nathalia Heinrich, “Oliveira Lima Library Digital Collections - The Oliveira Lima Family Papers,” in Research Corner, June 21, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6207383/oliveira-lima-library-digital-collections-oliveira-lima, accessed June 30, 2023; Fernando Miramontes Forattini, “The Digital Archives of the Brazilian National Library - Part 1,” in Research Corner, July 19, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6267068/digital-archives-brazilian-national-library-fernando, accessed June 30, 2023; Forattini, “The Digital Archives of the Brazilian National Library - Part 2,” in Research Corner, August 2, 2020, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/6301598/digital-archives-brazilian-national-library-%E2%80%93-part-2, accessed June 30, 2023; Bruno Miranda Braga, “Biblioteca Digital Curt Nimuendajú: Línguas e culturas indígenas sul-americanas,” in Research Corner, November 21, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/9081900/blog-biblioteca-digital-curt-nimuendaj%C3%BA-l%C3%ADnguas-e, accessed June 30, 2023; Gabriela Massip Figueredo, “Navigating the University of Miami’s Digital Cuban Heritage Collection,” in Research Corner, July 10, 2022, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/10478732/blog-navigating-university-miami%E2%80%99s-digital-cuban, accessed June 30, 2023; Figueredo, “Exploring the Library of Congress Online,” in Research Corner, July 24, 2022, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/10534345/blog-exploring-library-congress-online-gabriela-massip, accessed June 30, 2023; Felipe Gómez, “The Latin American Comics Archive Digital Collection,” in Research Corner, October 2, 2022, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/11109455/blog-latin-american-comics-archive-digital-collection, accessed June 30, 2023.
 Cohoon, “The Digitization of the Archivo General de la Nación del Perú,” in Research Corner, June 28, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/7880557/blog-digitization-archivo-general-de-la-naci%C3%B3n-del-per%C3%BA, accessed June 30, 2023; Cohoon, “Acquiring Digitized Documents from the Archivo General de la Nación del Perú,” in Research Corner, August 1, 2021, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/8002725/blog-acquiring-digitized-documents-archivo-general-de-la, accessed June 30, 2023; Cohoon, “The Biblioteca Nacional del Perú’s Digitized Holdings,” in Research Corner, June 20, 2023, https://networks.h-net.org/node/23910/blog/research-corner/12882575/blog-biblioteca-nacional-del-per%C3%BA%E2%80%99s-digitized-holdings, accessed June 30, 2023; Cohoon, “Locating, Ordering, and Purchasing Digitzed Docments from the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú,” in Research Corner, August 4, 2023, https://networks.h-net.org/group/blog/20002228/blog-locating-ordering-and-purchasing-digitized-documents-biblioteca-nacional, accessed September 16, 2023.