Tales from the archives

Sister Agnes asks: "what are you waiting for?"

I know, I’m becoming tiresome for always nagging you to get your sorry behinds into the archives and start digging, as opposed to relying on on-line databases and published sources for your historical research.  But, here’s why, friends:  Barbara Austen, the Florence S. Marcy Crofut Archivist at the Connecticut Historical Society, has an interesting essay at Common-Place about her efforts to apply “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) in making the CHS collections more accessible to researchers.  When she arrived at the CHS in 2004, this is what she found:

Armed with a pad of paper and several pencils, I systematically inspected every shelf in the manuscript stacks—43 ranges with approximately 1,276 shelves—which took a year to examine, record, and put into a searchable database of more than 18,000 records. That was while still doing my regular duties—answering reference questions and arranging and cataloging newly acquired collections. For the inventory, I opened every box and every volume to record very basic information, like the call number, the creator (author) of the collection, a brief title with dates (such as “Diary, 1750”), whether there was a record of this being a gift or a purchase, whether or not there was any organization to the collection, and a brief note on the size or extent (1 box; 30 volumes; 10 cartons). I also went through all 24 volumes of our accession records looking for manuscript gifts and purchases. Then I checked our card catalog and the online catalog (which has items added to the collection since 1984) to determine if researchers could find the collections using the tools already at hand.

What I found during the inventory both fascinated and appalled me. Some collections with obviously early documents had never been touched! The papers were still folded into little tri-fold bits, tied together with string or ribbon. Who knew what they contained? I was also fascinated at how carefully certain collections were cataloged, down to the item level—each letter had been individually described in the card catalog and sometimes in the online catalog. These records were for letters or documents related to individuals like Silas Deane, Oliver Wolcott and other great white men. Other important collections had no catalog record at all. This lack of access astounded me, even though several cataloging projects had preceded me, such as reporting collections to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, adding 96 finding aids (narrative guides) to Chadwyck-Healey’s National Inventory of Documentary Sources, OCLC (the national online database of library holdings) and 30 finding aids available on our web site using special encoding, which was completed in 1999.

The inventory made it very obvious that over a third of the manuscript collections (5,542) had no records in the online catalog; nine percent (1,520) had no record at all; and ten percent (1,860) had never been organized (processed) for researchers to use. Unless you had access to browse the closed stacks, as I did, there was no way to know these collections existed, and there were no plans to provide non-staff access to the inventory.

This is why we love archivists–go read Austen’s full report of what she accomplished at the CHS.  (At least, this sounds like a good plan to me–as opposed to waiting for the Magic Funding Fairy to make it possible for traditional archival processing, since ze will probably never arrive.)  Perhaps the biggest reason why some of us have been told that “we can’t do [this or that kind of] history because there are no sources” is because of the historic biases that have shaped curatorial practice, plus the absence of resources now to make archival materials searchable and available.  I’d be especially interested in hearing from those of you who have worked in archives or who have other insights.  (What do you think, Jacob?)

24 thoughts on “Tales from the archives

  1. This is great, thanks for linking to Austen’s piece.
    I recently found a document in an archive, in a different language to most of the collection, and apparently unrelated to the others in the file – I’m preparing a short “Notes and Documents” (ie “looky here what I found!”) article about it.
    Much of my archival research has involved stumbling onto things that were incompletely/incorrectly/un- indexed. As pointed out, it’s only the collections that allow researchers full access that allow for these serendipitous discoveries.
    And it is pretty exciting to realise that you are the first researcher to use a source.


  2. The Countway Library at Harvard University Medical School is doing user surveys to find out if researchers would prefer extremely detailed finding aids, which would delay making collections available for years while they are processed; or having more cursory finding aids but make the collections available to researchers much sooner. For me, this was a no brainer — I want those records!
    I’ve had projects delayed or scrapped altogether because records that were owned by a repository (and listed in Worldcat) had not been processed so weren’t available.

    Also, since I research the VERY recent past (i.e. from yesterday on back) — I do have to point out that there are resources that are available ONLY in electronic format. It sure is nice to use the electronic reading room for various government agencies than to have to file a freedom of information act request for every single item you want. And don’t suggest going in person — you still have to file a FOIA request to see them.


  3. My experience has been quite similar to Barbara Austen’s. The archive where I work is lucky enough to have a number of excellent volunteers, one of whom undertook the task of recataloging collections that were processed 50, 60 years ago. Of course, the dead white guys were pretty well represented in the descriptions, and to some extent, sources concerning slavery were well documented, always from the point of view of the slaveholder, though. In particular, materials concerning women and free blacks were usually overlooked. Most institutions don’t have the luxury of going back through their collections in such detail, or even doing detailed cataloging in the first place. Even though that has been our model in past, we have started doing more with MPLP and increasing access to collections that have been in our backlog and otherwise would be for the foreseeable future. We have turned up a handful of collections that had surprising material in them, and friends in other institutions have told me about some spectacular finds that had been overlooked for one reason or another. It’s amazing what you can discover with a little digging and a friendly archivist as a guide.
    On that note, a few years ago, I read an article about the benefits of developing good working relationships with archivists, and I think an article like Austen’s drives this home. At my institution, even though we have a backlog that doesn’t appear in our catalogs, the archivists generally have a basic idea of what is in the back waiting to be processed. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of researchers who have been given access to unprocessed collections, because they took the time to talk with us about their work. And, if I discover something relevant later, I’ll often contact the researcher and let them know what I found. Some researchers, on the other hand, are so guarded and protective of their projects that we can’t really help them.


  4. You know it’s funny–I was just going to email Historiann with a comment about my time in the archives! I am spending a good part of the summer (7 weeks) doing archival research. My first leg is in the state historical society of a pretty decent sized colony/state in early America. And it is a bit shocking to me that almost *no one* shows up to do research. There were some days in December where I was the only one. Yesterday I think four showed up (at the busiest time of day). On the upside, everyone gets their own table. On the downside–how can anyone find anything really new if no one shows up?

    Based on this new project, I don’t think I am going to run across any sources no one has really looked at. But based on my experience in my first book, I am looking forward to being the first person to figure out what a particular source mean. (Have I ever told the story about finding William Penn’s original treaty with the Indians? The supposedly mythical one? I have a xerox of it in my office.)


  5. Thanks so much Jacob for your comment–I really want to second, third, and tenth this part: “On that note, a few years ago, I read an article about the benefits of developing good working relationships with archivists, and I think an article like Austen’s drives this home. At my institution, even though we have a backlog that doesn’t appear in our catalogs, the archivists generally have a basic idea of what is in the back waiting to be processed. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of researchers who have been given access to unprocessed collections, because they took the time to talk with us about their work. And, if I discover something relevant later, I’ll often contact the researcher and let them know what I found. Some researchers, on the other hand, are so guarded and protective of their projects that we can’t really help them.”

    I remember being much more reluctant as a very young researcher to talk about my research, for fear of being “outed” as green, a fraud, an idiot. Sometimes researchers aren’t very communicative because they fear they’ll look inexperienced. But, your comment should remind us all to GET OVER OURSELVES and ask for help. (At least in North American institutions staffed by pros like you and Austen–archivists in other places aren’t so accomodating. But, even then, so what if you get shut down? That’s better than NOT asking and missing some important stuff.)

    But, I think it takes experience and knowledge for us to admit the limits of our knowledge. Now, I’m grateful if an archivist or librarian can correct me or help me by showing me what I *really* want to see, not the stuff I thought would be the most helpful.

    John, I don’t know what’s up–you’d think that your archive would be popular at least this week, since it’s so hot outside, and I’m sure it’s got the A/C. (Why isn’t every movie theater and library in the East full up? Seems like a nice and easy way to duck the worst of the weather.)

    KC and Katrina–thanks for your reports from deep inside the archive. What I wonder–and connecting back to Jacob’s comments about volunteers–is if it would be worth if for archives to start their own wikis so that researchers and other scholars can contribute to the archivists’ knowledge of their collections and assist in creating finding aids? I realize that unscrupulous scholars could gum up the works by writing incomplete or misleading information on the wiki–but I seriously doubt that that would be a big issue at the majority of state and local archives. Taking advantage of knowledgable researchers’ work would I think outweigh the possible problems that people could introduce.


  6. This is a great and timely post, and it hits home in a whole range of ways. I haven’t been “back” to the CHS for literally decades, mostly for shape-of-the-project reasons, but it’s always lingered in my memory as one of my favorite archival experiences ever, as a very green operative at the time. I walked in there back-when with a topic that had “Betsy Ross” levels of iconic visibility in the culture and asked if they had anything on it. The person I talked to, probably long since retired now, said I really doubt it. And a quick walk with hir over to the manuscript card catalogue indeed suggested they had at best only a handful of fragments. Then I said: well, do you have anything for the T—–ll family? Or any H——–n family papers, or a bunch of other major early Nutmegger families. Well God, did they! When I specified a fairly narrow date range my table was quickly piled with boxes, from which relevant documents were scrambling down the sides like Titanic survivors! I ended up spending a week there, it was probably a defining experience in my evolution as a researcher. The fact that I got to the mother lode with the help of a lucky followup question I had not been trained to ask made it even more memorable. Plus I loved walking out and back each day past the Mark Twain House!

    Not sure what the takeaway lesson is. I spent two days this week at a major archive, with a courtesy tour of its vast stacks, and I was agog at the things you would see in the descriptive cards on the shelves of boxes. I guess a selfish, or egotistical, or competitive part of me has come to think that I’ve developed a pretty good nose for the ball in archival situations, and that who would want to share such an “advantage” (even if only for the thrill of the hunt itself) for the sake of better archival practices. But no, the beyond-the-call interventions of people like Austen are invaluable and should be better recognized and supported by budgets.

    I don’t know what to make of John S’s observation, except to say that I’ve noticed the same thing a lot of the time. Four big tables, 3.25 researchers, lots of room to spread out, not enough people to schmooze with.

    I really like the idea of the wiki. One could actually be created either with or without institutional participation, and the latter mode could create either useful or problematic tensions between institutional intentions and user-community interests–as with other internet-based utilities. I’m thinking, perhaps, of the job wikis here.


  7. I love being in archives, because I usually am going through things that are not well indexed. I’ll never forget going to check out a collection that had 4 catalog numbers (i.e. 78, 80, 81, and 82). It turned out that two of them were large boxes, about a foot high. Christmas in July!


  8. I’m heartened by the fact that this story involved a lot of hard work, by smart people using simple tools like pads of paper and pencils. Its nice to see the simple approach triumph over the need for ‘more technology.’ It didn’t take Google, or Bill Gates or a ton of fancy equipment. It just took some smart people rethinking the process.

    Don’t get me wrong, I totally love technology and gadgets. I am sure that digitizing the records would also be incredibly useful, but this seems like it was cheaper and a better use of available resources.

    Hard work, by motivated and curious experts, reveals new sources that are now available to historians visiting the CHS right now. Great! Yeay, archivists!


  9. I have experienced both sides of this. I have worked in a very badly catalogued archive that was rarely used by academic historians- mainly because they just don’t know what is there- despite it having some wonderful sources. And, I was always seriously concerned about both what people were missing and that when the main archivist retired that the knowledge of what was there would disappear with him. I mean that was actually a standing joke in the archive, but given his age, one that was scarily true! And, while it might be nice to imagine that the archivists (or even volunteers) could work through it in their spare time, the little we managed while I was there was a tiny fraction of the collection. It was also not helped by the fact we dealt with new accessions, operated several museums and public enquiries all at the same time, as well as the archive being held in two different locations and neither of those was in the same place as the archivists were based (so no nipping in in your spare time- not that there was any). So, getting to know your archivist (and also your obscure, local archives) can only be a good thing.

    But, the other side of this is perhaps related to the ‘sideways methodologies’ in previous discussions. As a historian I have met the older school archivists and said ‘my topic is x women’s history’, and got ‘no we have nothing’. And, then you ask for particular things (which you know they have) and they very grudgingly give you them or are very difficult about getting things, and basically treat you as if you are wasting their time because as far as they are concerned, there is nothing there. So, I can see why some historians are reluctant to explain their topic as they don’t want to start justifying and explaining their methodologies. I have to say that I think this is a risk that needs to be taken given the above! Plus, even the old school archvisists- if you are persistent- sometimes start to make links themselves- you are interested in x type of source, well we have similar…

    I would also say though that some of the gaps in history is not just about bad cataloguing. I know that in the papers of the great white men of my national context, their wives’ papers were ignored, despite them being catalogued (although generally less well than their husbands). And, that led some big political historians to make some basic mistakes as they assumed women weren’t political actors when they very much were- something that women’s historians now take great pleasure in pointing out.


  10. I work mostly with early books (many that are only now becoming digitized in some collections) but going to archives has always been a big part of my work. However, I balance that off against the increasing difficulty level of leaving autistic youngest — one parent is not enough to keep an eye on her all the time and we can no longer wrangle our increasingly aged parents to assist.

    So balancing off the two activities — deep dives for short terms in archives with home-based use of the electronic resources, keeps me going. I’ve also reoriented my current research to take advantage of relatively local archives to which I can travel with family.

    Getting out there and looking at those materials can be eye-opening in ways that even the best search engines won’t always get. Every grad student should have some leisure to actually explore in an archive, calling up boxes of “possible related” materials in hopes of that serendipitous find!


  11. Having worked in more than two dozen archives, I definitely see the value of them. But like Janice, I also see the practical concerns that get in the way. My graduate students, on the wrong coast for 90% of archives in their time period, and tied to the University by TA and summer school teaching to survive financially, have a tough time funding archive trips. Most of the state archives they need don’t have funding; those Historical Societies that do are really competitive. I can’t, in good conscience, require them to do archival work for their PhDs when it means going into (more) debt.

    At the moment, I also find myself preferring non-archival work given my own personal and professional responsibilities.

    So while I’m sympathetic, I’m also a bit leery of privileging archival work as necessarily essential. I do think that there can be good historical scholarship done with e-resources. But I guess we’ll see when my next book gets done…


  12. I work in Europe and yes yes yes good relationships with the archivists are important. Not only are almost all the collections behind closed doors, they are poorly cataloged. A good relationship with an archivist can mean the difference between looking the source material and not knowing it exists. But archivists aren’t universally friendly or helpful, especially in provincial archives, and there can still be some hostility to foreign scholars and also to women. In some places “gifts” are still necessary to grease the wheels (where I work, usually some form of alcohol). Even well-cataloged archives can areas scholars don’t know about, either because the archive wishes to keep access restricted, or because they were never cataloged. It’s also important to keep in mind *how well* something was cataloged. the joy of the archive of course is the uncataloged find – nothing beats the thrill of it. I can’t really imagine replacing archival work with anything else, since that’s just not possible for my field.


  13. Janice and Shaz make great points about the difficulties–personal and financial–that are making time in the archives even more elusive for many of us. (Like both of you, my time in the archives has been very limited in the past few years, for reasons having to do with distance, an absence of funding, and personal reasons.) I think some of these things are cyclical or life-stage related. Most people–unless they remain unmarried/unpartnered/child-free renters and/or happen to find jobs very close to important archives for their research–spend a lot less time in the archives proportionally speaking than they did for their dissertations and/or first books.

    Shaz, I do think it’s possible for individuals to write interesting history without months and months in the archive/s. I’m just against the profession giving up on archival research wholesale, when there’s so much out there left to be re/discovered. I can’t tell you how many of my friends who told stories like Austen’s of going into archives and unfolding trial records that hadn’t been unfolded since they were originally folded and tied up neatly in the eighteenth century. (Offhand, I’m thinking of John Sweet and Kirsten Fischer, people who published two very innovative studies of race, slavery, and sexuality in the past decade. Both of them have told me identical stories about showing up at small, provincial archives and being handed bags of previously unopened 18th C court records.)

    What I would also say is, who says you’re on the “wrong” coast to do early American history? What about mission records (I presume they’re Archdiocesan records kept locally?) Your students have close access to the Huntington, for example. Is there not (in Ned Blackhawk’s terms) an “early American West?” All it takes is a few years of intro Spanish and maybe a summer course in Latin for reading knowledge, if they don’t have it already. . .


  14. My own “why I love archivist” story involves the Doris Duke Oral History collection at UNM. The project coordinators indexed for stuff they were interested in and left out everything that they weren’t. The archivists at the Zimmerman library tipped me off that the index was shoddy, so whole interviews were tagged with “nothing of significance.” “You’ll have to read them all,” they told me. By now you know that those interviews were filled with the most fascinating and relevant materials for my project. And all because what was “significant” to the archivists was old Navajo myths and legends. Anything that showed Navajos involved in the cash economy, acting politically, or as not “Navaho” (to echo Erika Bsumek’s usage wherein Navaho connotes the idealized Indian created for market purposes) was ignored.


  15. Finances are definitely a huge problem, especially at SLAC’s like mine that want us to produce high-quality scholarship without funding it. But I have found some workarounds–for example, microforms, which haven’t really been mentioned on this thread. I have reels and reels on my shelves at home in addition to all the photocopies I’ve made during my 1-2 week summer forays into the archive during the summers I can afford it, and I’m able to do some good work on my subject this way. It seems Cengage especially is making more collections available all the time. Some archives will even allow you to request to have a collection filmed–although often at the researcher’s expense, which can still be cheaper than multiple trips to that archive, especially if they don’t allow xeroxing.


  16. LMC–your comment makes an important point, which is that trips to the archive need not be months long. I think it’s easier for an experienced researcher who’s been to the archive before to get the most out of them in compressed periods of time. This goes back to Janice’s comment–a lot of people are unable for a variety of reasons to spend several months or a year at an archive. Doing the researcher version of MPLP, and bringing home microfilm or photocopies, is much better than nothing, and usually works pretty well.

    (I have myself found that photocopies of some 18th C documents are pretty inscrutible, and prefer to work with manuscripts, but that’s highly contingent on the kind of records one uses. I, too, have had to do more with less time in recent years, so I get where you’re coming from completely.)

    Western Dave mentions oral history–now, that’s something that it seems could be made readily available to researchers via podcasts or MP3s–or just putting them up online for all to hear. Are there any archives that are doing this with their oral histories?


  17. Historiann — I completely agree with you. I have often talked about (in my spare time) wanting to write an article on the impact of structural differences (funded archives of private Important Papers v. under/unfunded archives of state documents, like court records, where marginalized people tend to appear. With the advent of digitization, this has increased the gap between the accessibility of different kinds of documents.

    Yes, the Huntington has some stuff — but the reason for using print (or even digitized) is also that it allows for a quicker dissertation, and when you are supporting yourself and have little guaranteed funding, quick is essential. Not good for the field, but good for the individual, often.

    I also agree on microforms — LDS have done a great job filming manuscript records!!


  18. The question of making detailed records of a small part of the collection vs. brief records for a larger part seems to be something that bedevils most archival institutions. I think that the majority of archivists, by training and personality, tend to be somewhat perfectionist, so there is a tendency to want to get every detail correct. I think that most archivists realize in theory that creating slightly less polished records for a larger percentage of the archival material is actually more beneficial to researchers, and a better use of time and effort – but perfectionist habits die hard. I have to remind myself (often multiple times) on just about every document and record that I work on that I don’t really need to be spending time making sure that every line is in perfect accordance with cataloging standards when there are still thousands of documents that either have no record at all or only the sketchiest of records.


  19. I hear you, Paul. I think many historians are of the same bent! When I read Austen’s description of MPLP, I wondered how hard some archivists must have to work to overcome their previous training and natural inclinations to thoroughness. . .

    And thanks for the link to Kentuckiana, Jacob!


  20. The story by Austen and the comments to this thread signal, to me at least, the virtues of the ongoing professionalization of the archivists/public history world since the 70s and 80s. As libraries and archives hire more and more thoughtful, up-to-date, trained professionals—as opposed to some of the past illiberal occupants of those positions (and admitted-but-informed generalization on my part)—we’ll see increasing numbers of discovery stories like Austen’s. I find the younger set of archivists to be more ethically aware and open to researchers. Even as I say that, I know of one younger (late Boomer/early Gen X’er) archivist (a XXer, you might say) who somehow imbibed the “I’ll-scrutinize-your-worthiness-based-on-my-petty-criteria” attitude. Who says “selection and emphasis” apply only to story writers holding the title of historian?

    I haven’t been able to spend much time in the archives, recently, with regard to my chosen dissertation (now book) topic. But I’ve thanked God many times in the past few years that I gave myself a liberal copy budget back in the day. – TL


  21. Late addition: just finished a brief colloquium with the archivists at the Society where I am doing my research. (All of the short-term fellows are required to give such a talk.) The questions ranged from excellent to amazing. The general depth of knowledge on my larger research topic didn’t surprise me, knowing that the jack-of-all trades skill that archivists have. But wow–there is just something really awesome about getting questions from the person who actually processed the collection you’re using. There’s nothing better than learning from that expertise when it comes to trying to figure out what might be there (but is undiscovered!) in the sources.


  22. Pingback: John D’Emilio: marriage equality “a sad misdirection?” | Historiann

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