A Ramble before a Rest: Making Good Archival Introductions

This semester, I have primarily worked on processing archival collections and preparing them for use by the public. Processing is a somewhat obsessive task, as you fall into the tiny details of a mostly-obscure individual whose papers – by privilege or chance – arrived at your repository. Soon you have little else to talk about, at least until processing is through. However, most of what happens to and with a collection happens after it is processed and considered done: visitors rummage through the records, they take photos and share them with colleagues and friends, they take notes which turn into books, documentaries, newspaper articles, or family stories, and they introduce others to the materials. These interactions, I feel, are the critical center of archiving.

This past summer, I worked as a reference intern at the National Anthropological Archives and spent my days answering visitor questions, finding documents, providing historical and cultural context for materials (as best I could), and explaining to researchers how the archives could be of help.  I was fortunate to be mentored by Caitlin Haynes, reference archivist, who emphasized the importance of being a support and collaborator to researchers – not an enforcer of archival practice, or a breathing Google search tutorial. NAA records were in use for language revitalization, repatriation of human remains and cultural artifacts, historicizing the discipline of anthropology, creating postcolonial web art – just as a start. To support this kind of personal work, archivists need to show empathy, patience, and confidence in the researcher.

“You can put that finding aid where your heart ought to be.”

In the “current political climate,” many of us are feeling short on all three of those attributes: I know I am. At the same time, researchers come to the archives to find hope – hope of rebuilding, of making sense of one’s own existence, or of finding old/new ways to be and do in the world. We think of archives as repositories of information, but that information is scaffolded by embodied human experiences. How we engage with our researchers – whether through finding aids, at the reference desk, or by e-mail – can set the tone for engagements between the researcher and the materials. Think of how difficult it is to learn when you don’t feel the teacher has faith in you. If our encounters with researchers are based in preservationist fears, or the belief that some researchers are more or less capable of engaging with the materials intelligently, then we stifle the very interactions our archives are meant to host. We become bad hosts.

At Special Collections, I’m thinking more and more about archiving as a kind of introducing: helping researchers meet materials which tell stories I cannot tell, stories I do not know. As a host, I want to make good introductions. For instance, a good introduction doesn’t intimidate either party: this might mean writing a finding aid with clear, non-academic language which summarizes what the materials might say but doesn’t over-promise. A good introduction also doesn’t frighten one party by belaboring the other party’s frailty: a finding aid, and reference encounter, with a minimum of scolding about maintaining archival perfection. Can you imagine a dinner party introduction with the content of a finding aid?

“Carol, this is Judy. I hope you have fun talking. But for God’s sake, Judy, watch out because Carol has dry skin and could fall apart at any moment. We only bring her out at holidays. And don’t ask her about her divorce: RESTRICTED. Only one topic at a time, please. Stay where I can see you!”

Over-anxious introductions don’t respect the worth, and competence, of both parties. A photo in the archive might be one of a kind, but so is the researcher. Is preventing fingerprints on a photo worth damaging a researcher’s belief in their own intelligence, or their own value? A good introduction balances the needs of both parties. It sounds simple, but it’s an ongoing process: How can we, as archivists, make good introductions every day? How can we show confidence in our researchers, and demonstrate that we believe them more than worthy of what our stacks hold?

I think the majority of the work is internal: monitoring our impulses and attitudes to understand why we want to hover, to over-explain, to protect one party from another. Learning a model of equity in a workshop is easy; implementing changes in attitude and practice within yourself and your personal life is much harder.

In processing, archivists get to know materials exceptionally well. Through the Carithers papers and the soon-to-be-released Murphey records, I’ve had the chance to try out various ‘introductions’ and think about how they will or will not help a researcher get to know the materials as I have and – hopefully – in different ways. As I wrap up the Fall term, I’m looking forward to next semester, making new ‘nonhuman friends’ in the archives, and hopefully making good introductions along the way.

They’ve truly got one of these for everyone! Thanks to Donna Haraway for a continual stream of ideas on how to live in our busy world.


(I recommend – for archivists and researchers alike – Jarrett Drake’s writing on surveillance, belonging, and liberatory archives. Many thanks to the Special Collections staff and the staff at the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives for their generous guidance over this past year. I’d also like to offer gratitude to Dr. Katie Walkiewicz for sharing her archival experience with me, inspiring this last post of the semester.)


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