Thorns, towels, and a farewell

Not so very long ago, I made my first post on Archivist Apprenticeship and shared with you the story of Joe Carithers’ water from beneath the Rainbow Bridge. It’s hard to believe that this post will be my last, and will mark the conclusion of my graduate assistantship at Special Collections.

Anticipating my entry onto the job market, I’ve spent much of the past month preparing for and attending conferences so I can share my recent work with other scholars. At the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting in late March, I presented my current research into archival things and their relationship to theories of materiality. As part of a panel on “Neglected Lifeforms,” I engaged in conversations with professors and graduate students who write about dust, atmospheric particles, equine disease, fungi, wheat, soil, and the erotics of plants. My presentation, in part, reflected on the physical experience of processing the John W. Murphey records and the ways the oversized ledgers dried my hands and made me sneeze, drawing my attention to the non-textual, non-pictorial elements of the ledgers.  I paired the ledgers with another agent of bodily change, ubiquitous in the Sonoran desert: puncture vine (Tribulus terrestris). An interdisciplinary panel of this kind can be really beneficial to archivists, because it introduces us to theories and ways of thinking about archival things that we might not otherwise engage.

The fruit of Tribulus terrestris. Some people use them as a hormonal supplement; I just get them stuck in my feet. 😦

For conference #2, I traveled back East to an archives conference. Outside of Special Collections, I am a curator for the Pittsburgh Queer History Project – an oral history and media archive focused on gay & lesbian after-hours nightlife, 1960-1990. Along with the lovely Harrison Apple, I demonstrated some of the ways community archives can productively complicate our concepts of ‘archival records’ and ‘linguistic tokens.’ Shifting back to my training in sociolinguistics, I used VHS tapes of 1980s drag queen pageants to consider how we might write a history of Pittsburgh English that can take into account queerness and performance. As always, the video of Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope – often called the ‘voice of Pittsburgh’ – detailing the origins of the Terrible Towel brought more than a few chuckles. It was a delight talking to other presenters and attendees afterward about methods for community engagement.

Though our presentation went well, our conference experience started off on a bad foot with an even worse shoe. As we approached the conference registration table, Harrison asked the volunteer at the table for directions to our conference room. The volunteer looked at us and replied, with undue self-assurance: “This is a conference for archivists, actually,” and suggested we might be at the wrong table. Harrison – with discernible annoyance and a tone as pointed as a freshly-sharpened pencil – assured her that we did in fact know which conference we were attending. Another, somewhat embarrassed volunteer gave us directions. As we made our way towards the meeting rooms, I saw archivists with all manner of dyed hair, plaid bucket hats, tattoos, and casual wear. Looking around, it became clear: to that volunteer, we looked too queer or too trans to be archivists.

Me, after receiving my name badge and conference program.

There continues to be a gap between the language of diversity & inclusion, and the personal commitment by archivists and librarians to doing the deep work: processing (emotionally), alone, outside of work hours, all the biases which inform our actions. Changing methods of description and widening collection policies has to be accompanied by attention to interpersonal interactions. In 2018, it was disturbing to find that someone would presume we couldn’t be archivists because of how we looked, but I know that we – as two white scholars with no visible disabilities – didn’t even experience the worst of this kind of behavior.

My conference experience was a timely reminder of the interpersonal work ahead of me in the archival world. With my experiences here at Special Collections – both with people and archival objects – I feel more prepared to be part of the discourse which shapes the field. How can we keep an eye on theory while engaging in archival practice? How can we spot the gap between discussions of inclusion and openness, and the lingering discomforts and prejudices we harbor internally? How can archivists learn from the researchers we serve as much as they learn from us? After a year at Special Collections, I’m ready to take these questions out into the world and work on them – collaboratively, patiently, looking exactly as I do.

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