Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Using Local Academic Archives

Patricia Donahue and Gretchen Flesher Moon, eds., Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007) provides another window into seeing the value of academic archives. Moon, in her introduction to this volume of interpretations about how students were taught to write in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notes this about working in these archives: “When one works in the archives, one finds not only the official records of enrollment, curriculum, and achievement, but also – often uncatalogued, undigested, uninterpreted – personal copies of books, notes, and papers that mattered to those who read and wrote in that place, at particular moments, on unique rhetorical occasions. Such items may be – most often, in fact, surely are – collected intermittently and without the kind of annotation that could help the researcher in the archives to assess confidently how typical – or not – were those moments and occasions at that place” (p. 2). The editors and authors have collaborated in forming this collection in order to encourage others to take advantage of their local archives to study the history of composition, although resorting in the acknowledgments section to referring to their various labors as “excavating from within their dusty archives” (p. xiii) may not be the way to encourage such research.

Archivists, especially those working within academic repositories, both dusty but mostly very clean, will discover lots of interesting references to the use of their materials for such work. Heidemarie Weidner provides one such reference: “Sustained by cheerful assistance of the archivist, I read handwritten minutes of board and faculty meetings, studied catalogue after catalogue, discovered lecture notes, student themes and diaries of both students and instructors, browsed through publications of the literary societies, and cross-referenced discoveries with one another and contemporary textbooks” (p. 59). Julie Garbus provides another example, arguing that scholars studying the history of composition “tend not to discuss their own research processes. Our methodologies remain our secret . . . . lack of time and money – perennial problems for academics, I suspect – complicated matters, too. Perhaps we need to begin discussing the processes and complications of archival research more openly” (p. 88). Obviously, archivists, reading this volume, will gain valuable understanding of how this particular group of researchers need to function within the archival domain.

Garbus, in fact, suggests a synergetic relationship between archivist and researcher, one more often presented by the archivist than researcher: “Eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-old students can be inconsistent record keepers; most students eventually throw away what course notes they have taken, not valuing them and assuming no one else would be interested either. As scholars who are interested in such documents, we need to try to preserve existing records, make others aware that they might be important, and make use of existing archival materials at our own institutions. Yet no professor wants his office stuffed with student papers from days of yore – and university archivists may shun them as well” (p. 91). Careful reading of these essays will prompt university archivists perhaps to rethink such perspectives, although since the days of Helen Samuels’ Varsity Letters book, it is unlikely that they have been all that aware of the value of such records documenting student life or instruction. Jean Ferguson Carr’s closing observation that “these chapters make energetic and cautious approaches to archives, recognizing that there are many gaps between what documents pronounce and what teachers and students do” (p. 238) is certainly not a new idea for most archivists paying attention to the scholarship in their own field.


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