Researching at the archives is an interesting experience in so many ways. I would like to share some insights about archival research as a process even though I am far from being a ‘pro’ at it. My dissertation is a historical study of Congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy (its non-proliferation policy to be specific) and its interlock with executive decision-making. The case study is Pakistan in its nuclear development phase from late 70s till overt nuclearization in 1998.
Let me state the obvious at the beginning: being a Pakistani graduate student working on nuclear non-proliferation issues in the United States has been an overwhelming experience. I am never sure about the kind of access I will get and always worried about being denied my right to information just because I am from Pak-land. But in one of my oral history interviews with a retired U.S. Senator, I was amused to learn that he was quite worried about the ISI tagging me as a U.S. agent (something I had not given much thought to) and that I should let him know if I am being denied jobs once I am back home. I don’t know if he had a solution for the ISI but it was nice to know that someone cared.
As some of you might know, nothing gets declassified in Pakistan (ever), so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Z.A. Bhutto’s and Zia’s letters to Ford, Carter and Reagan in the archives. The first time I held the original document printed on the letterhead of the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, I was shaking. It took me two minutes to collect myself and begin reading the content of the letter. I even found greetings and salutations to be interesting, for example, I was surprised to see that Gen. Zia ended some of his ‘official’ letters by signing-off as ‘Yours’ whereas the official responses to those letters by his U.S. counterparts used “Sincerely” as their closing salutations. Whilst going through the documents I had to constantly remind myself about how I wanted to use them in my research. I looked out for how policy issues were discussed, who said what to whom and what role did certain individuals in the Congress and various administrations played in shaping a particular event. Sometimes while you are researching one topic, you might come across documents on a completely unrelated subject, which might be an Alice in Wonderland moment. My advice is to go down the rabbit-hole even if it takes you off the track for a while. To be honest, I am quite apprehensive about my interpretation of the archival documents I am collecting mainly because I now realize that the burden of historical truth is huge one to carry.
Though researching at the archives can be an emotional process, it is equally physically exhaustive. Most researchers working in the archives develop something which a History Professor, Claire B. Potter calls an ‘Archives Back’ which one gets “through the twisting motion that is required to get a very heavy archive box off the cart when in a seated position and bending from the waist”. While I still have to experience a paper cut from the documents, I have suffered my share of severe back, neck, wrist pains (no, it isn’t arthritis. I have not even hit my 40s yet) and dust allergies while working at the archives. So if you are planning a trip, please do stock up on pain relievers and antihistamines.
Its an adventure. Let the evidence speak to you.