By Appointment Only

“I am a writer and historian researching a book,” the e-mail began. The words felt strange to write. Writer, sure. But historian? “I’m interested in history,” I often say, when asked “what kind of plays do you write?” But drama is fiction, and fiction is free of the responsibilities of history. Fiction, especially when it’s “interested in history,” requires research, of course. But history requires trips to the archive. So, “I am a writer and historian researching a book,” I wrote, in my e-mail requesting an appointment at the reading room of the United Nations Archives and Records Management Section.

“The reading room is accessible by appointment only,” the website says. “When making the first contact with ARMS, preferably by e-mail, state the research topic succinctly.” Easy enough. The topic is Utica, New York, though that seems like a tenuous justification for requesting an appointment at the UN archive. More specifically, though, and more relevantly, the topic is the history of economic decline and recovery in Utica alongside the history of refugee resettlement. But that isn’t very succinct, is it?

I wanted access to the archive of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, a predecessor organization of the UN, founded in 1943. I wanted to look at trends of refugee resettlement at the end of the Second World War. What were the numbers? What were the stories? Where were people coming from, and most importantly for my story, where were they going to? How could trends from previous periods of mass migration help answer my central question about the economic benefits for rural communities who make an effort to welcome refugees?

But still not very succinct. “I am a writer and historian researching a book about refugee resettlement,” I wrote. There, succinct. But would it be enough? Sent from my prestigious “columbia.edu,” would this be enough to land me an appointment in the reading room at the UN? Days passed and I didn’t hear back. I thought about what the reader of my e-mail must have perceived as the nature of my trip, or of its urgency. Perhaps framing the request around a crucial piece of information I needed from the archive would have helped. Perhaps I should have been less succinct.

I felt a familiar feeling, one that I’ve felt often when asked that same question, “What kind of plays do you write?” The feeling of failing at selling my work, at being unable to succinctly express the complexities of an idea, of a story. The feeling of struggling to create a logline, a pitch, that provides enough information to grab an audience, but leaves enough unanswered that they feel compelled to engage in the completed work. The U.N. archive wasn’t buying what I was selling: a Columbia student doing research into refugee resettlement.

Moving forward, I’ll have to change my pitch then, won’t I? I’ve chosen to explore a topic that has been covering front pages for weeks now. Just another piece about refugee resettlement might not seem or sound so crucial right now, to an audience or to the people who I’ll need to convince to provide me with access to the archives and resources I’ll need to write my story. Moving forward, how do I express the complexities, the angle that makes my story special, all while staying succinct?

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