I’ve often toyed with the idea of becoming an archivist as a career. I almost applied to the dual history MA/Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Maryland in 2019, but I had a change of heart when I visited UMD’s campus and found it absolutely awful. It was perhaps the most unattractive university campus I’ve ever visited.
But this is not a polemic against the otherwise great institution of Maryland’s premier public university—this is my reflection on working in the archives.
I grew up in an archive, of sorts. My mom was the ceramics and glass curator in the National Museum of American History for all of my childhood, and I used to spend many hours (during summer vacation, many days) every week in the museum. I frequently played with 200-year-old marbles, toured collections filled with pottery and artwork from late-19th-century Louisiana, and frequently wandered among the museum’s document archives.
When I was 18, I did my high school “senior project” in the form of a one-month internship on the team designing the forthcoming “American Enterprise” exhibit at the museum. For that, I spent the majority of my time in photo collections, patent libraries, and advertisement archives in the museum. My job during this month was to design a scale model of a typical Nebraskan wheat and corn farm from the 1920s, featuring period-correct patents and design on everything from windmills to agricultural machinery (this model, and other labels I helped write, are now on display in the museum!). I learned a great deal about the evolution of the combine harvester during that month.
But I am not a student of cultural or material history, and while these experiences did show me the magic of historical collections, they also left me with some mixed feelings. The archive can feel like—and frequently, is—a cold, stuffy, and antisocial space. It’s amazing to me that a place that contains so many historical voices, recorded on so many different media, feels so lonely and deprived of community and interaction—like being alone in a megalopolis.
It doesn’t have to be exactly like that. The archive particularly feels like a lonely place if it doesn’t contain work that really moves you as a historian. American cultural and material history may not be my cup of tea, but many other types of history are: modern political and diplomatic, medieval European monastic, or borderlands history certainly all are. As an undergraduate student in Chicago, my classes frequently did field days to the UChicago special collections and the archives of the Newberry Library; seeing an original copy of Abraham Ortelius’s Teatrum Orbis Terrarum rolled out of its archival wrappings in the Newberry remains one of my most excited moments ever as a student.
Later on, as a graduate student, I spent a great deal more time in the archives. I collected photos in the Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts library for this book on Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard. I also collected and processed letters and other documents in the same RBML for a follow-up [forthcoming] to this article on the advent of social security in early-20th-century America.
For my own MA/MSc thesis on German merchants in London in the late 16th century, I spent two days in the London Metropolitan Archives and one day in the UK National Archives at Kew, handling original letters, bills of sale, and court proceedings from the 16th-18th centuries. However, as my friend and colleague Zach illustrated in his piece this week, the researcher often does not find the documents they seek within the archive. Unfortunately for me, I found literally no documents of use to my project during these visits (the documents I did use ended up being from digital collections).
But what stands out in my memory of these experiences is not the failures (in London) or even the successes (in Columbia’s RBML); what stands out is the physicality of the archival journey, as Zach also argued.
Nearly every day for two months during the summer of 2021, I would wake up and take the 2 train or walk from my apartment to Columbia’s campus, settle in to the 6th-floor archival reading room in Butler library, and sift through hundreds of documents or photographs for many hours. Despite my ancillary role on both projects for which I did research in that library, I found myself growing deeply attached to the ‘main characters’—of the stories—both of which took place in part in Manhattan—that played out in front of me as I was reviewing materials. I felt real joy seeing the NYC addresses to which 1920s social security crusader Abraham Epstein sent thousands of letters, outlining his work in and movement across the city. Likewise, I found myself empathically projecting myself into novelist Shirley Hazzard’s shoes while looking at photos of her and her husband in Bryant Park or the Upper East Side. I loved these stories: because I traveled to the archive in person every day, because I often sat in Riverside or Central Park, because I went to Lower Manhattan every weekend, these stories came alive. The same is true for my own research in London, albeit with much less time spent in-archive there.
These stories, and millions more of their kind, can’t come alive if you as the historian don’t live them. Being a historian is not about reading or modeling history after yourself, it’s about entering into a genuine conversation with past voices and, in a sense, modeling your own life after those of your main characters in order to understand them. History is not a science, and it does not contain within it any universal models or philosophies; history is dialogue and community. If you don’t put your human self in the same (or in some sense similar) position of discomfort and awe and stimulation that your ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ felt, then you can’t really feel the humanity of the story you’re telling, and your work won’t add much value to the world. Traveling to the archive—its city or town or countryside place and being there—is the most readily available method by which we as historians can ‘speak’ with those whose stories we seek to tell, and let them speak to us.