This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library collections for the development of their work.
Pichaya Damrongpiwat is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Cornell University. At the Berg Collection at NYPL, she conducted research for her dissertation on rape and gendered violence in women’s writing during the long eighteenth century.
What brought you to the Library?
One of my key authors is Frances Burney (1752-1840), and much of her extant papers are housed at the Berg Collection, including the manuscript drafts of her first novel, Evelina (1778).
What’s the most unexpected item you encountered in your research?
Frances Burney, Autograph verse on sheet, “To Doctor Last”
Dated June 23, 1769, this poem was composed by 17-year-old Burney to commemorate her father, Dr. Charles Burney, receiving his long-awaited doctoral degree in music.
But the most striking feature lies between the creases where the paper had been folded. On the backside of the sheet, there is an “address panel” addressed to Dr. Burney. But the letter was never posted, of course, and is instead part of young Frances’ play-pretend at letter writing, a practice for which she would be remembered and celebrated. The creases show that she folded the letter as if to post it, even writing the address of her father at Oxford and the sender address from her house in London.
This subtle but remarkable find shows the young Burney’s predilection for writing, or, in her own words, “scribbling.” But equally, it also shows how children often imitate the adults around them. Everyone was writing letters, so Frances would too. Therein lies the trace of a lived life, which is only visible on the original sheet at the Berg Collection. This artifact is a testament to the ongoing importance and irreplaceable value of our archives and libraries, even—or perhaps more than ever—in our digital ecosystem.
What research tool could you not live without?
Through the recommendation of a librarian, I use a program called Tropy to organize images. This lightweight client helps with cataloging, grouping, finding duplicate images, and so forth. Above all, it’s free!
Where is your favorite place to eat in the neighborhood?
Café China on East 37th Street.
How do you maintain your research momentum?
I am of the persuasion that writing should be an integral part of archival research. I write small notes during the day, such as noting why an item captured my interest. At the end of the day, I review these notes and generate a paragraph or two of the findings. I find that doing so helps maintain and can actually sharpen the focus for the following day.
Is there anything you'd like to tell someone looking to get started?
Librarians and curators are archives of collected knowledge unto themselves, and they can assist with your project from start to finish. So go ahead, ask a librarian, and get started!
Have I left anything out that you’d like to tell other researchers?
Aspirational: Archives are such treasure troves and I try to spread the word as much as possible that access is possible, even for early-career researchers. There’s nothing like seeing the original artifact, and it will transform your research.
Practical: Look at the physical card catalogs in addition to digital finding aid(s) if possible. Some things may have slipped through the cracks during digitization.
Lastly, I’d like to give a shout-out to my wonderful feline research assistants, Pina and Monty, who made my stay on the Upper West Side a very special one by waking me up at 7AM sharp each morning, taking turns sitting on the desk chair, and asking for many, many back rubs—it’s important to take breaks!