Never Stop Searching: Insight into Archival Research

by Samantha Perlman 17C
Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

After completing the final draft of my history honors thesis this week, I have a newfound admiration of academia. Historians extensively research their topics before even attempting to write monographs. I found myself becoming a historian this past semester as an Undergraduate Fellow at the Fox Center. Immersing myself in the Emory University Archives in the Stuart A. Rose Library, I strived to translate my research questions into a finished product.


At first, it was extremely difficult for me to get my bearings on archival research. I was fortunate that the Rose Library created extensive finding aids but I had no idea how to approach my research questions. My history honors thesis is on the history of integration at Emory University from 1969-1989. Looking back to those early days in September, I did not know that I would lock into that particular twenty-year period. All I knew was that I had an interest in racial integration at Emory and that I wanted to chart the success of this initiative through the Office of Admission’s black recruitment and enrollment data. This was probably much easier in theory than in practice. One thing I learned from my research was not to search for something too specific in the archive; otherwise, I would have missed all the nuances of the documents and the larger story.  As I sifted through thousands of papers, I began to create broad themes to guide my research and write down unfamiliar terms, events or people that I discovered. Often, it was this fluidity of searching, in which I was open to interacting with the documents, that I found my most pertinent material.

I remember when I came across my first major document: The President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities (PCSM) 1981 Report. President Laney established the PCSM in 1979, one year following his inauguration at Emory. The purpose of the PCSM was to study minority recruitment across the university and develop recommendations for how the administration could better serve minority students, staff and faculty. My 1981 document was the initial two-year study the PCSM conducted. The Report contained reflections from minority students and faculty as well as a crucial chart in which the PCSM compared Emory College black recruitment statistics to its peer institutions. Emory’s peer universities included Duke, Rice, Tulane and Vanderbilt. The 1979 data was shocking and crucial to the narrative arc of my thesis; I learned that Emory College Admissions ranked below all its peers in the percentage of black applicants who were accepted (31%) although they had one of the highest overall acceptance rates (63.7%). Such data indicated to me that the Office of Admission in 1979 had clear issues with black recruitment. I developed this insight from one chart in a document!

Moments like the one above, truly transformed the rigorous thesis process into an exciting journey. Some days, it was difficult to maintain my motivation. However, writing my undergraduate honors thesis remains the most exhilarating and meaningful academic experience of my college career. In many ways, I have to thank the amazing community at the Fox Center for this positive experience. I wrote my entire thesis at our Fellow office. Working in the Center constantly reminded me the importance of academic scholarship. I am so grateful to be a part of such a talented group of scholars!


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