Archival research is akin to poking through someone’s bedroom while they are gone, or reading someone’s diary without their permission. At first, it seems that you are violating the space of another individual. There is no way for them to specifically grant you access, nor for them to even know that you are reading their personal artifacts. It feels more like snooping than research. However, there is something special about getting to know someone posthumously.
While reading through the MARBL Josephine Baker papers, I forged a one-sided, intimate connection with the famous Josephine. Josephine Baker will never know who I am, or that I know so much about her personal life. We will never meet, and I will not have the opportunity to ask her the pressing questions to which I am left with no answer. My relationship with Josephine may not even be valid, since the only contact I can ever have is in the remnants she left behind. However, Baker’s letters to herself and the public were meant to be shared. In scraps of her memoirs or musings that are in the collection, she writes with the specific purpose of someone reading her thoughts. Even so, these letters are not addressed to anyone in particular, but signed in a grand flourish by Baker. Josephine knew that people would yearn to know more about her, past the movie roles, past the banana dances, and past the songs she recorded. MARBL’s collection contains hundreds of letters to and from Josephine. These letters answered the question, “Who was the real Josephine Baker? To her loved ones? To her employees? To herself?” Throughout the MARBL collection, she discusses her tumultuous love life, acquisition of children, professional career, and severe monetary issues. Reading these letters allowed me to look directly into the life of Josephine for the larger span of two decades, and also to analyze the interactions Baker had with others.
I had various challenges during my thesis research at MARBL. When I first began parsing through the collection, it was unprocessed. There was no rhyme or reason to what each box contained, and I had only vague descriptions about what the entire collection would offer me. I spent most of the summer cataloging each piece of material I came across. I wrote down the dates, correspondents, box number and key facts of each newspaper clipping, photo, and debt letter. I finished going through each box during the summer, and I was proud of my meticulous notes. During the fall, the weekend before I started writing the first chapter of my thesis, the collection was processed and every single piece of writing that I had cataloged was moved to another location. I was frustrated with my new struggle, especially when I realized how much easier my research would have been after the cataloging. MARBL allowed me to have an intimate connection with an iconic figure. I would like to see more people prying into the personal artifacts of iconic figures. No matter how one-sided, it’s a relationship worth having.