(Re)Discovering the Past: Undergraduate Research at the National Archives
Matt Hermane, Roxi Eshghipour, and Daniel Durkin reviewing research materials at the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies
Research is not an activity that usually conjures notions of fun and excitement, but three students of Iranian history have found it can be an incredibly interesting and rewarding experience. In their first week of class, Daniel Durkin, Roxi Eshghipour, and Matt Hermane, students in Dr. Ida Meftahi’s class on modern Iran, were offered the opportunity to participate in a project to research and analyze previously unseen video footage. The film reels, recorded by Stephen H. Nyman, were recently donated to the University of Maryland’s Roshan Institute for Persian Studies by his daughter. Nyman, a photographer by trade despite having degrees in commerce and business from George Washington University and Columbia University respectively, lived mostly in Iran from 1938-1965 before passing away in 1988 at the age of 79. “I found it interesting that this was a project that had never been researched before or written about,” explains Eshghipour when asked what drew her to the project, “I also thought it would be interesting to step out of my comfort zone and try something I have never done before.” Aside from his contribution to the work of Arthur Upham Pope, the author and editor of the well-known multi-volume work A Survey of Persian Art, and some photos of his published in National Geographic magazine, there was little information to be found on Mr. Nyman himself. The first step for the new researchers was to discover more about the American citizen who had such a wealth of experience in Iran during the monumental World War II years and continuing into the Cold War.
The University of Maryland’s close proximity to the National Archives provides a unique, advantageous opportunity to students. Filled with U.S. federal records, the Archives is an excellent spot for all researchers to at least start trying to find information on just about any topic. For this subject, the students have mostly analyzed documents from the old U.S. Embassy in Tehran. One’s first foray into the National Archives can be a little intimidating though. “I was surprised by the number of security measures that had been put in place, such as the rule prohibiting zip-up jackets,” says Durkin in describing his first trip. Once the researcher makes it past metal detectors, security guards, and the introductory PowerPoint presentation necessary for receiving the research card that allows them to peruse archival materials, the process of finding the information you need to study is pretty simple though. “The staff showed us how to look up certain topics in the State Department Name index and how to fill out forms to request the corresponding boxes of documents,” Durkin continues. It is also well advised to be armed with a good amount of resolve when working with the archival staff that, while incredibly knowledgeable, sometimes forgets the visiting researchers do not spend as much time inside the Archives as they do.
The other quality all researchers need to bring to the Archives with them is patience. Of her hours spent flipping through government personnel files, Eshghipour explains, “The most frustrating part, like all research, is when you can’t find anything, or when something leads you to a dead end.” Sometimes researchers also encounter false hope, when something discovered seems promising, but ends up being of trivial significance. “For example,” Durkin expounds, “we once found a letter mentioning Nyman, but it turned out to be a simple ‘Thank you’ note from one of his employers.” The students, working around their class schedules, are only able to spend an hour or two of their time at the Archives at once. This only makes their rare discoveries more momentous though, and, more often than not, these revelations come when least expected. “The most rewarding part of doing this type of research is establishing connections between pieces of information that don’t seem to be related to one another,” Durkin clarifies. These are the moments that make the mostly tedious research process worthwhile.
All in all, these students have gained a very enlightening and beneficial experience by having the chance to participate in this project. By studying the experience of an American who worked and lived in Iran, not only have they learned much about Iran during Mr. Nyman’s time there, but also about the United States. The researchers have been able to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the U.S.-Iran relationship through the often-overlooked lens of American cultural diplomacy in the country. The study of primary resources aids one in understanding the development of history through the eyes of those who experienced it, helping to appreciate the human aspect of events that can so often be lost in history texts. Eshghipour sums it up perfectly in her statement that the most satisfying part of research is “working in a group and being able to share information, ideas, and thoughts with each other,” and, as she puts it, “engaging in something that makes you think in a more unique and abstract way.”