People have their own perceptions of how individuals in different career fields actually do their jobs. There used to be a great meme that was divided up in different sections explaining what different people think individuals in particular careers do. The sections were “What my mom thinks I do. What the public thinks I do. What my boss thinks I do. What my friends think I do. What I think I do. What I actually do.” The assumption always seemed way cooler than the actuality – which was the entire purpose of the meme. I thought it would fun maybe even informative to write about how I work as an independent historian, but also the accessibility issues that I and other unaffiliated historians face. Before I dive into this, a bit of a heads up– I am only speaking from my situation and I am not making any kind of judgment or call for historians in other situations. SO! Let’s begin!
I have been an independent historian since I walked across the stage at commencement in May 2018. For me, personally, I viewed myself as a historian once I received my Master’s Degree in History because it gave me the additional training that I did not receive with my undergraduate degree. The intense level of reading and analyzing in addition to the research papers I had to write, gave me the foundation I needed to be able to do the work of a historian after finishing grad school.
I call myself an independent historian because I am not affiliated with a university, nor work as a historian for an organization or institution. All my historian work is done on my own. This gives me the freedom to work at my own speed, but also means I do not receive any kind of formal funding for my research or for conferences from my work, leaving me responsible for those expenses. Being non-affiliated does not mean you cannot receive funding from other different avenues. For example, some museums/archives offer research fellowships and allow non-affiliated researchers to apply. Organizations for independent researchers also exist. One being the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, whose membership benefits consist of a 50% discount to JSTOR (article database), its own journal that you can publish in, and grants for research and conferences.
When I was a college student, I had many resources on hand that I sadly lost upon graduating. As a student I had access to an array of different article and newspaper databases, which allowed me to sift through huge libraries of secondary sources and newspapers from different centuries. In addition to databases, I also had access to books from different libraries through interlibrary loan, which allowed me to request books from other libraries that would be shipped to Rutgers. While I am still able to take books out of the school library, I am barred from using the databases off campus. The inaccessibility of these resources or contingent of accessibility based on me being at the college is difficult due to me living an hour away and working full time. So, fair warning, when I take books out, I hold onto them for a long time, *cough* two years *cough* till I am able to get back to the college to return them. Losing ILL has also limited the books I have access to. For example, there is a dissertation I am currently struggling to get my hands on, but it appears the only way I may be able to get it is by driving almost 2 hours to the library it is at.
Article databases do have subscriptions, but some of them can be as high as $200 a year. Although it is not horrendous when you divide it by 12 – it does add up, when you then add the newspaper subscriptions into it. There are at least 3 different newspaper sites I have gotten stuck trying to access due to paywalls. (It gets old after a while). In addition to article and newspaper databases, the accessibility of journals also entails yearly payments to organizations. I get having to charge a yearly membership, the work put into the journals – accumulating, editing, printing, and distributing publications is not free. All of the necessary resources needed to research cost something and it can become quite an expense, especially if everything needs to be renewed at the same time.
It sometimes is a juggling act with working full time while researching and writing on the side. After working all day, I come home and rest for 2-3 hours before working on my research till I go to bed. My weekends usually consist of working most of the day. Though I do not do history in hopes of becoming wealthy – at this point, and honestly, I do not know if it will ever change, the research and writing that I do on the side is unpaid labor.
While I work all the time, and it means a lot to me – the most important thing I have learned is that it is okay and necessary to rest. When I complete an article, conference or presentation, I rest for a couple weeks, sometimes even for a month. With all of the work, and the constant drive to research and produce it is easy to fall into the mindset that my value is contingent on my work – this is a toxic viewpoint. While I love my work, it does not reflect my worth as a person. When I succeed – I celebrate the successes, and when I fail, I try to do better next time. I always strive to grow and continue to learn how I can improve my work. As I already stated, rest and self-care are critical and give you the capability to doing the work.
As I wrap up this blog, the largest issues I have had with being an independent historian is accessibility which has led to financial expenses. The loss in resources and learning different ways to find sources has been a learning process within itself after graduating. But I am thankful for my training and my experience in archives that has made the process easier than what it could have been. Accessibility is an ongoing issue that many institutions, organizations, and archives are constantly wrestling with, and now with the closures due to COVID-19, the discussion has been amplified.
I hope you enjoyed this – I guess that’s the right statement? Or that it was helpful in some way. Below are some resources that I use or have found online.
National Coalition of Independent Scholars, https://ncis.org/
Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), https://www.shear.org/membership/
Newspaper Archive, https://newspaperarchive.com/
Genealogy Bank, https://www.genealogybank.com/
Family Search, https://www.familysearch.org/en/
Project MUSE, https://muse.jhu.edu/