I think a lot about the often tenuous relationships between archivist and historian. I’ve been in and out of a number of different archives in recent months looking for similar types of documents occurring across different jurisdictions in the northeastern states and provinces. Each place I go I become fascinated with the intersection between how documents are created and how they’re archived–and of course by “archived” I mean both how they’re stored and how they’re indexed. In some cases there is a very clear and logically laid out hierarchy of finding aids that can tell you what something is and how valuable it may or may not be to you before you’ve even seen it. In other cases you are completely at the mercy of the archivist who is the gate keeper of all things old and paper-based. And in that latter case if something early and inadvertant should foul the waters that run between archivist and historian, the historians will see their research and the history that will be told from it radically altered, and the archivist will see their jurisdiction sadly unrepresented, or certainly underrepresented in the forthcoming history of said time, place, or phenomenon. And given how the literature of the discipline evolves, those effects last and ripple.That being the case it’s interesting to me to think about ways I can cultivate such relationships, and ways that I can try to see myself from the perspective of the archivist. I know how historians are trained and I’ve been around enough of them to recognize that social skills are not always as meticulously shaped as the intellect. Archivists, however, undergo a very different form of training and therefore approach problems and questions in a very different way. And at the end of the day, they actually spend more days in dusty, often virtually empty, rooms than we do…and yes there are cases where they are similarly bereft of social graces. So does there exist some common ground, some fruited plain, upon which a pair of awkward social zeroes can come together in a way that ultimately advances scholarship–or, more modestly, minimizes resentment and acrimony?
I think there is. And I think it’s incumbant upon me as the historian to find that place by trying to understand as much as I can about the jurisdiction that created the document I’m looking for. I need to recognize that the “context” I’m trying to create with my documents is different from that which the archivist consults to try to find them–or to arrange and index them in the first place. Kevin MacDonald of the Public Archives in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island recently told me a colorful story of one Lieutenant Governor on the island who, upon taking office, ordered the disposal of enormous quantities of government documents. A truck backed up to the government house and staffers loaded it up with paper. As it drove away stray pages fluttered out the back and landed on the street where they were collected by passers by. Many of those people saved them, stored them, and ultimately turned them back over to the government, which, with apparent renewed interest in documenting its own history, preserved them. This story doesn’t fit into my tale of the island’s approaches to fisheries management, but it does, perhaps, help to explain why little material exists from which I can better understand pre-confederation approaches to managing the local fishery.
Archivists often tell stories of how agencies realigned, or laws passed relating to document management, or the pesky customs house fire of 1858, that seem on the surface to be of little consequence to the historian. I’ve seen other historians get testy and impatient when regaled with such stories. I guess it would be worth reminding those historians how your non-academic friends’ eyes glaze over when you talk about what YOU do.
By the same token though, archivists need to recognize that correlation between ready and logical access to documents and the inclusion of their own regions and jurisdictions in future renderings of history. I spend too much time doing research to willingly subject myself to working in an archive where the archivist is unapproachable and the finding aids are either non-existant or unintelligible. I’ll figure out a way to tell my story from a different perspective, or I’ll scrap it and tell a different story altogether.
Another thing I think a lot about is the possible alliance that could be created between historians and geneologists…talk about the ultimate collision of the socially inept!! But that and more specific thoughts on productive relationship building in the archives will await another day’s post.