Archival Diplomacy

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?

The Public Archives of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where Rob Gilmore and his staff are exceedingly helpful, and their collections rich and well-indexed.

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.

4 thoughts on “Archival Diplomacy

  1. Do you think that some sort of basic archival training should be included in a grad student curriculum? If grad students had a sense for how archivists are trained would it make them better archive users and ultimately better historians?

  2. I’m not sure I would call upon history graduate programs to provide actual library science training. But I do think graduate programs can play a role in chipping away at the cultural barrier that can divide historians and archivists, thereby imbuing their populations of future historians with greater sensitivity and appreciation for the expertise these people provide. Fostering conversations outside of the archives is a great place to start. Bring in archivists from local or regional libraries to give seminars where they talk about what they do. This would give new grad students some leads and ideas about accessible collections, but also a window into how archivists think about their own work. When I was an MA student at the University of New Hampshire, I remember the department brought in the then archivist at the regional office of NARA in Waltham. Probably one of the top five most fascinating guys I’ve ever heard speak. At the University of Maine Desiree Butterfield-Nagy, the archivist for the Cohen Papers and now Special Collections archivist, has sought opportunities to speak to graduate students in the history department, and by doing so initiated ongoing conversations about opportunities for valuable research and unwittingly inspired this series of blog posts.

    • I think that exposure to archives is also important for students interested in history. Maybe a capstone class or senior seminar would be a good place to take a group of undergrads to an archive so they could don the white gloves, face masks, etc. and get a sense for the actual tangible smell, sound, and weight of historical documents. Although most historians visit archives at some point I think many historians are usually physically removed from the “stuff” that is the basis of history.

  3. Pingback: What We’re Reading: November 15, 2012 | American Historical Association

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