The Archive Blitz

Over the past few years, autumn has meant archive time for me. Notwithstanding a soft spot for falling leaves, I can’t help but be drawn to yellowing records this time of year. The chance to take on new projects, visit new repositories, and work in new collections seems a harvest festival of sorts. By far the sappiest of my seasonal rites and research analogies comes from another fall tradition—that is, American football.

I used the “archive blitz” to help me move past one of the biggest challenges historians face. The reality of limited archive time forces researchers, especially less experienced researches like me, to broach questions with not necessarily intuitive answers. What material is required to help solve my research problem? How do I prioritize the essential material when there is so much interesting but nonessential material in this collection? When is enough really enough? More completed projects and more hours in the archive give seasoned historians confidence in approaching new collections on a time crunch, research skills sharpened through steady work over many years. In the throes of a semester though, I found an aggressive approach to these questions helped me move forward when I wanted to linger over every record, folder, and box.

My game plan scheduled an unrelenting number of archival trips into several chunks. The awareness of an appointment at another archive the next day motivated me to comb a collection for the essentials. Sometimes, I visited two different archives in the same day, eating lunch in transit. With a more structured and ambitious approach to archive time, I better prioritized what was most useful for my projects before, only if time allowed, looking for stories in unexpected places. Trying to move quickly helped me attack my research question with more focus. I stopped saving the best documents for last, wasting time optimistically poking around for evidence that was seldom there. I started pursuing the real leads with more relentlessness.

This fall, I bring up this approach to once again psych myself up for time in the archive. Despite the aggressive strategy last year, I found myself making additional trips to the archives. These extra visits happened because I came across more material than anticipated and because research questions evolved as the project progressed—both good things. Having said this, I attribute these positive developments to starting fast, and only later slowing down and really digging in. Whereas in past terms my projects had their respective archives relatively close together, this time around I’m working in archives with both great distances between each other and a real trek from where I live. Time to see if the archive blitz works as well on the road as it has at home.

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Lunch at the Archives- More Jokes Than You Can Make a Sandwich With

A few months ago, I found some left over sandwiches in the break room at work. As I was eating one, I thought of a hilarious tweet idea:

Just “gained access” to some leftover “materials” related to bacon, lettuce, and tomato. “Accessioned” them into my stomach. #LunchAtTheArchives

In the subsequent weeks, I thought of several more jokes that were food and archives related. I realized it was time to start another comedy blog. Appropriating my oh-so-clever hashtag from the original tweet, I created Lunch At The Archives, a tumblr site dedicated to jokes at the intersection of “food and the profession,” [of archives].

I think it is important for every profession to have a humorous totem they can cling to [see Public History Ryan Gosling]…and I just really like cracking jokes that appropriate professional jargon and concepts.

The blog serves several functions. First, to share jokes that reflect the common quirks of the job:

Lunch at the Archives
Lunch at the ArchivesLunch at the ArchivesLunch at the Archives

Once, I also created a full Dublin Core Entry for a sandwich I ate.

Sometimes, though, I use the blog to address more serious professional issues:

Lunch at the ArchivesLunch at the Archives

Although the blog is young, I invite you to visit. I’m sure there will be some incredible material for your consumption.

(cringe)

Around the Web (July 2012)

Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related news that emerges on the Internet. In this installment of “Around the Web,” Anne E. Cullen highlights new digital collections and blogs, museum reviews, and pop culture happenings that exemplify public history online.  Follow The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen.

LFH BlogImage source

  • Since we’re all about mythical figures re-examined through the lens of feature films here on the Lakefront Historian (read our recent roundtable reviews of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), we couldn’t help but notice another historical heavy-weight recently memorialized at the box office: Marie Antoinette. Farewell, My Queen, based on the award-winning novel Les Adieux à la Reine by Chantal Thomas,  hit theaters this July 13th. Watch the trailer here.
  • Threadbared’s review of the Tattered and Torn: On the Road to Deaccession exhibit on NYC’s Governor’s Island explores historical value, material culture, and costume collections.
  • Speaking of fashion and public history, in July the Chicago History Museum debuted an online digital collection showcasing their costume collection.  With over 50,000 pieces from the mid-18th century to the present, CHM’s collection is the second most expansive fashion collection after that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Another new online collection? Don’t forget to check out the Grateful Dead Archive Online which includes over 45,000 digitized items from the library at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
  • The Chicago History Museum commemorated the 1919 Chicago Race Riot with a blog post built around Jun Fujita’s photographs of the tragic violence.
  • Loyola Chicago’s own Women and Leadership Archives recently launched a new tumblr. The blog features fun and interesting photographs from WLA’s collections and also highlights other online content related to women and history.  Check out the tumblr here.
  • The National Archives is recognizing the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with a web research page highlighting Presidential records related to people with disabilities throughout US history.
  • And in honor of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, be sure to watch this amusing video that uncovers the secret history of the City of London.

Living Donors and the Maintenance of Legacy

It’s 95 degrees and about 75% relative humidity. I’m hunched over a box of documents in the un-air-conditioned attic of a former US Senator who now lives in Chicago. As I flip through hundreds of file folders, I remove all financial records and anything that says “FEC.” To the left, my boss stands and hands folders one-by-one to the Senator, who reviews every document-be it a lawsuit or a Christmas card- and tells a brief story before approving it for donation or discarding it. 30-odd large boxes surround us, brimming with files and papers yet to be sorted. After 4 stuffy hours, we’ve made it through 1/10 of the material. Does anyone have a bucket of ice water I can borrow?

After some rehydration and reflection on this archival materials pick-up I recently accompanied my boss on, I realized how the experience can be used to examine some of the benefits, pitfalls, and other issues archival professionals face when dealing with living donors.

Living donors can be an amazing resource for archivists- and indirectly for historians. Donors can answer questions and provide context for their collections through storytelling or other verbal and written communication. Interaction with donors also gives the archivist an idea of the donor’s personality, which could lead to insights when arranging and describing a collection. Such knowledge can also be shared with users to provide deeper context for their research.

Of course, the politics of working with a living donor can be difficult too. Some donors make demands for control of the arrangement and description of their collections. Some donors ask for materials back after they have been legally signed over to a repository through a deed of gift. Headaches, to be sure.  But to me, the most interesting aspect of a living donor is the desire that often manifests for one to edit-or in some cases censor- one’s own legacy. We all want to look good in the history books, right? When donors are alive, they can decide what not to include in their own record. And in the name of shared authority, this is unquestionable. But it makes for an incomplete historical record.

It also raises questions about who has the right to dictate a legacy. Should an individual alone decide how he or she is remembered? Does that right fall to those who were most affected or closest to the individual? What about outsiders or third-parties (including but not limited to Public Historians) who can come in with a supposedly unbiased approach? Of course in the case of archives, it is less about memory and more about creating and preserving a complete and accurate historical record. A gap in context created by the omission of one document could shape historical interpretation for centuries.

Of course, legacy maintenance is nothing new. Court historians have flattered their monarchs to keep their jobs (and sometimes their heads). Corporate lackeys have shredded papers to escape prosecution but also to erase histories of corruption in their companies. Because all primary resources are biased in some way, archival professionals must recognize the importance of working with living donors to document recent history and to ensure the most robust historical record possible.

Summer at the Library of Congress

Greetings from Washington, D.C! I feel fortunate to be spending my summer in the nation’s capitol as a Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress. My internship is in the technical services section of the Prints and Photographs Division, working with a team on an ongoing rehousing and inventory project. The goal of the project is to consolidate thousands of boxes of unprocessed collections from two storage locations into a new storage facility in Maryland. Our job is to rehouse the material, organize it if needed (which is usually the case), create folder-level container lists, and update the catalog and finding aids used by the reference staff so that the collections are more accessible to researchers.

Admittedly, processing archival collections is not the most exhilarating way to spend a day, but I find photographs and printed material much more compelling than textual records, so I very much enjoy my work. One of the best parts is that I have the opportunity to work with a variety of collections and materials, and I get to choose the collections that I process. After processing eight different collections, I have a new appreciation for all that you can learn just by paying attention to visual evidence. Let me tell you a little bit about two of my favorite collections and what I’ve learned from the visual evidence (and a little bit of contextual research).

The American Humane Association

Horse ambulance
Horse ambulance operated by the Erie County SPCA, c. 1910

The American Humane Association served as “a voice for the voiceless” – advocating for the humane treatment of animals and children beginning in the late nineteenth century. The photograph collection illustrates the activities and interests of the AHA beginning around 1910 through about 1960. One of the most interesting aspects of the collection is that, taken as a whole, it shows how people’s notions of animals evolved over the first half of the twentieth century. Most of the early photographs deal with horses – either working in the city, on ranches, or being used in wartime. Early education campaign posters photographed in the collection urged people: “be kind to dumb animals,” “you can’t starve and beat your horse and have him haul the load,” and “don’t skip his meals.” By the 1930s and 1940s, these basic reminders of how to treat animals were replaced by charming photographs of children with puppies and kittens, and a special series called “Touring with Towser,” that demonstrated the best way to road trip with your dog, including having the proper equipment such as a dog bed, thermos, food, collar and leash, and even raincoat. By looking at the content of the photographs used by the AHA in their publications, one can see how animals changed from being generally utilitarian creatures to members of the family.

Continue reading “Summer at the Library of Congress”

Around the Web (May 2012)

Periodically, a Lakefront Historian contributor surveys recent public history-related news that emerges on the Internet. In this installment of “Around the Web,” Rachel Boyle highlights new columns, blogs, and posts that exemplify public history online.  She also anticipates the opening of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Follow The Lakefront Historian on Twitter (@LakefrontHist) for news updates as they happen.

Continue reading “Around the Web (May 2012)”

Plans for Summer 2012, Part Two

Winter BreakThe Field Museum, Chicago Illinois
Photography by Anne E. Cullen

What do public history grad students do with their summers? Learn about the exciting internships and projects that students are undertaking across the country. And check back in the fall for students’ reflection on their summer work.  To read about what our first batch of respondents are doing with their summers, click here.

Continue reading “Plans for Summer 2012, Part Two”