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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

History of An Archival collection

Reading Sara Christine Snyder’s “Odyssey of an Archives: What the History of the Gordon W. Prange Collection of Japanese Materials Teaches Us About Libraries, Censorship, and Keeping the Past Alive,” MA thesis, University of Maryland, 2007 reminds me that there are probably a lot of theses done on archival topics that we miss (dissertations usually lead to some form of publication, but masters theses often do not). You can find this study online at

Snyder relates the story of how this collection of materials, compiled during the Allied Occupation of Japan, came to reside in the U.S. at the University of Maryland. Gordon Prange, a professor of German history, built this collection while working in Japan as the Chief Historian of the Historical Branch, G-2 Intelligence Section. The materials he gathered related to his growing interest in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and he arranged for hundreds (more than 500) of crates of materials to be sent to the University of Maryland in 1949-1951, where they languished for many years before being opened, catalogued, and made accessible (and ultimately named after Prange himself). Prange is, of course, the historian who worked as a consultant in the making of the 1970 motion picture Tora! Tora! Tora! And who, after his death in 1980, had major books published about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the battle of Midway, and other topics (Prange could never feel comfortable in finishing his research projects, always concerned that there was more bit of evidence to be found and interpreted).

This study describes the vagaries of this collection’s history. How, for many years, it was neglected, how in the mid-1960s it became the nucleus of the East Asian Collection, how it was kept in the main library’s basement for years, how a flood in that basement threatening the collection led to negative publicity and attracted attention by individuals in Japan who demanded the return of these materials, until the real archival material was finally separated out from the newspapers and print holdings in the 1990s. There are interesting discussions of the challenges of access to the collection, and even efforts to censor the use of its holdings. We rarely see such detailed histories of individual collections, and this is a good one.