Working in the Smithsonian Archives: A Historian’s Perspective
In this guest post, I would like to reflect on the state of the relationship between archives and historians. The occasion of American Archives Month should be celebrated not just by professional archivists, but also by the historians who benefit from their hard work.
In 1919, a curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution wrote an unusual letter to his supervisor about the state of affairs surrounding the National Museum of Natural History. The curator, Ales Hrdlicka (pronounced Eard-Litch-Ka), was upset because his walk to the museum was filled with offensive sights and smells. He wrote:
The general untidy condition along the side-walks on the north front of the Museum has within the last few weeks become distinctly aggravated particularly on market days when hucksters loading their wagons along the side-walks throw all sorts of refuse into the street, on the walks and even on the parking, and this decomposes further in the heat of the season. Lately on these days, the curbs and sidewalks present ill-smelling refuse accumulations which are not only unsightly and where thousands of flies feed, but the stenches that arise from them are decidedly obnoxious and dangerous to health.
Hrdlicka had a flair for the dramatic, and a reputation amongst nearly all who encountered him as (at the very best) a curmudgeon. Nevertheless, Hrdlicka’s concerns were likely genuine. To those of us working in archives in the United States today, the experience of walking to our place of work through rotting garbage and noxious gases is generally unknown. However, a number of new problems plague the museums, archives, and libraries that we depend on for our historical research.
As a historian, my own experiences in the archives were greatly enhanced during a pair of extended stays at the National Anthropological Archives (NAA). My time at the NAA was fruitful not only because I found a massive trove of sources for my research, but also because I learned about archival work through my interactions with staff members. As I spent countless hours in the reading room of the archive, I began to observe patterns of behavior from other researchers. Most visitors to the archive were courteous and professional but some visitors managed to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot. This latter group of visitors often arrived without an idea of what they wanted to find in the archives, had failed to do any sort of advanced research on the materials, and were sometimes rude to the staff of the archives. Although they may have done some cursory study of the archive online, they had seemingly rushed through the process, and many did not take the time to explain to the archivist in clear terms what they were hoping to find in the collections. Witnessing these interactions got me thinking.
Archivists, on the other hand, should consider the many pressures on the shoulders of both academic historians and other researchers. We are struggling to find dissertation topics, trying to publish and teach our way to tenure, and we have a journal breathing down our neck for revisions. Our limited travel budgets make our time in the archives frustratingly short. This might seem like whining. Nevertheless, archivists might benefit from taking the time to understand the various pressures and influences historians are working against.
Samuel J. Redman is an Academic Specialist at the Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies 19th and 20th century cultural and intellectual history. His webpage can be found at http://www.samueljredman.com/. He has been afforded the opportunity to work in twenty different archives in the United States. His dissertation is entitled, Human Remains and the Construction of Race and History, 1897-1945.
-posted by Leanda Gahegan, National Anthropological Archives