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Sunday, October 3, 2010

From the other side of the desk...

As the Reference Archivist for the National Anthropological Archives, I meet and help approximately 400 researchers a year not including those researchers that I assist via email, telephone or by mail. I always get excited when I have the opportunity to work with a researcher who is enthusiastic about our collections. For this blog post, I’ve asked one of our most passionate researchers, Sam Redman to comment on his experience as a historian working in an archive. Enjoy! - Leanda Gahegan

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.

Over the past twenty years, a series of new technological advancements drastically changed the relationship between archivist and historian. The availability of online primary sources increases access and allows historians to familiarize themselves with geographically distant archives. Digital cameras have also changed the way researchers interact with archival material. At the archive, a historian can use a digital camera to photograph archival material without actually taking the time to read the documents. I argue that while digital cameras increase the ease that historians can interact with archival material, the historian misses an important opportunity to interact with the archivist. A historian who reads primary source documents in the archive can explain to an archivist why he or she finds them useful, adding to the institutional knowledge of the archive. A historian who has taken the time to carefully examine a collection might be able to help fix problems with finding aids, or point to linkages between different collections.

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.

While historical researchers often consider themselves advocates for their own organizations – universities, tribes, or corporations – they rarely think of themselves as advocates for one of their most important resources, the archives. Archivists and historians sometimes fail to understand one another. Before setting foot in the archives, those training to become historians should be taught about the importance of the facilities that organize and preserve original historical documents, not just the need to record them for our historical writing. At the university or college level, students of history are taught about how to critically read and assess primary documents, but we often fail to teach our students about the important institutions that preserve these documents for future generations, while continually granting us access to their treasures, allowing us as historians to reinterpret their meaning. Academic historians know the state of affairs of higher education in the United States intimately, but we less often include the state of affairs of the archives in our dialogue.

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.

Working at the archives at the Smithsonian was one of the most rewarding experiences of my young career. The staff of the archives helped me immeasurably. Not only did they assist in tracking down sources, but they also pushed my ideas in new and exciting directions by introducing me to collections I never would have sought out on my own. This happened, I believe, because I tried to take the time to step away from the laptop now and then and remember to interact with the human beings behind the institution. I also believe that I have been able to help the archives in some small way. I quickly became friends with many of the staff on a level much deeper than the common interactions normally experienced between researchers and archives. Further, I was able to share with them some of my knowledge about their collections gleaned from other readings and archival experiences. Finally, I attempted to point them in the direction of minor mistakes in finding aids or collections in need of conservation – working with them to preserve and organize these collections for the next generation of researchers. In an ideal world, working in the archives would always be like this. Unfortunately, archivists and historians sometimes neglect the process of building professional relationships with one another. Perhaps historians will continue to get lost in all of our technological advancements, but I hope we take the time to ponder our non-virtual relationships with archives in the coming years. Both should strive to continually engage in a meaningful dialogue about their experiences in the archives. On the occasion of American Archives Month, I wish to congratulate the many wonderful archives within the Smithsonian Institution for their hard work in this direction.

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 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

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