Adventures in the New Humanities: Archiving
This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
Many years ago, while doing some research, I found something I wasn’t expecting to find at the Wisconsin State Historical archives. While reading the papers of composer Marc Blitzstein, best known for his 1930s musical, The Cradle Will Rock, I got distracted by some more compelling personal letters between him and his wife, Eva Goldbeck. Blitzstein was gay and Goldbeck supposedly his beard, yet one can’t simply dismiss his choice to marry her, as some have, as career enhancement. Goldbeck was dying, hospitalized somewhere, literally starving herself to death, and Blitzstein was devastated.
I should have moved on from those papers, but I couldn’t. I lost track of time and anything going on around me in the archives as I absorbed the whole sequence, which, I seem to remember, just trailed off, hardly surprising given Goldbeck’s condition. I didn’t know anything of Blitzstein’s personal backstory, nor Goldbeck’s, but I knew what I was reading was a complicated love story. So too could I intuit that there was going to be a tragic outcome.
I thought of that experience while listening to the head of the Library of Congress’ Rare Books Division, Mark Dimunation ’74 tell St. Olaf students about a 19th-century book that came his way. His scholarly intuition, he said, told him that while the book itself was ordinary, there was something about it that hinted at its extraordinary function. The handwriting inside seemed more than just a childish scrawl. Mark also wondered about the list of cities written in the book — cities that formed a pattern, south to north. Research supported his hunch that this was no ordinary book. Rather, it belonged to a particular — and ultimately identified by name — sojourner of the underground railroad, the fraught pathway north and to freedom for the enslaved. Mark said a wave of emotion swept over him as he realized what this book had meant to its possessor.
His reaction, like mine, was hardly surprising. There is something immediate, tangible, and so compelling about holding a fragment of the past in your hands. Digital databases have really revolutionized research for many of us, but nothing quite compares to that awesome moment when you experience a history so intimately. Everyone who visits archives eventually has a moment of transcendence.
There is something immediate, tangible, and so compelling about holding a fragment of the past in your hands. Digital databases have really revolutionized research for many of us, but nothing quite compares to that awesome moment when you experience a history so intimately. Everyone who visits archives eventually has a moment of transcendence.
These days archives aren’t just for professionals. The more digital we become as a society, the more we clamber to see, touch, and participate in history. There are whole communities of reenactors, and many people engage in genealogy; but for a lot of us, no trip into the past would be complete without a visit to an archive. Everything has a history, the American Historical Association reminds us, and so, too, does everybody. If you really want an immersive experience, find an archive.
Archives are humanists’ spaces, and I mean that in the broadest possible sense. They contain the raw materials of a million human stories. They help us feel some emotions that seem sadly lacking in the modern world: empathy and compassion. We feel things; we learn things. What a satisfying combination.
Archives, moreover, don’t just house papers. My personal favorite category of archival things is ephemera. Ah, ephemera, archival fluff, but fluff based on stuff, things people found important at the time, like scrapbooks or old Christmas cards or objects. I have my own private collections of ephemera, including a mini-archive of outdated music delivery systems my students love. As they hold album covers, 8-track tapes, and a Walkman in their hands, they insert themselves into the lives of past generations of students while they gain insight into the present. Did they ever have a Sergeant Pepper moment like I — and millions of other people worldwide — did? As they marvel at the clumsiness of the 8-track or the beauty of album cover art, they share the stories they’ve been told about their parents’ and grandparents’ pasts, discovering that what a friend and I call “so-much-alike” can go back a few generations.
The modern era raises all sorts of new challenges about archiving our digital footprints. Some of our recent past is stuck on its own sort of outdated technology we can’t retrieve anymore, like family movies on VHS tapes or copies of letters stored on floppy disks. More problematic are the changes in our habits, like the near total absence of physical letters. Half the texts one of my sons sends me consist of a single letter, “K,” which I don’t think merits saving, but if we were going to save it, somebody with some professional training is going to have to figure out how. Of course, a good group text is its own new art form, which, again, requires some professional preservation intervention. I’m beginning to think archivists must have a lot of sleepless nights trying to cope with modernity.
St. Olaf is in an archival moment. Mark was at the college to help launch a campaign to raise money to build a bigger and better vault to store three important collections: the college archives, the Norwegian-American Historical Association archives, and our special collections, which include everything from Chinese manuscripts to feminist zines. You can read all about the matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for our new vault here.
At St. Olaf we rely on our archives to provide the raw materials to tell our stories. Where did the information for our memorial to James Reeb ’50 that is in the Rolvaag Memorial Libary lobby come from? The archives, of course. Ditto for the homecoming crown on display in the library last year. This fall the Race and Ethnic Studies program didn’t just bring back founders to commemorate its beginnings; it used photographs and documents from the archives, including some nifty buttons made by Myrto Neamonitaki. Some day soon those buttons featuring images from the St. Olaf Archives will be ephemera. It’s the circle of archival life, K?
We recently rearranged responsibilities for our archives so that we have two librarians working on them. The first is Jillian Sparks, who handles outreach, so if your class wants to look at any of our collections, she’s the person to talk to. Kristell Benson is our archivist, overseeing the collections, organizing, preserving materials, and making sure what we have is accessible to those who need it. The two work together in tandem for events like last year’s pop-up exhibit for International Women’s Day. There were buttons at that event as well, along with objects and photographs that really gave you a sense of what life might have been like for women at the college decades ago. The college also brought in Sarah Quimby, who has extensive experience working for the Minnesota Historical Society, as head of acquisition and resource management — archives and the metadata that will describe it are resources that she helps manage. You can learn more about our Special Collections from this handy YouTube video. Yes, we are that modern about the past.
Our students, too, are in an archival moment. Erin Magoon ’21, who works in the St. Olaf Archives during the school year, spent part of her summer in the ELCA archives in Illinois as part of a Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) project with Professor of Religion DeAne Lagerquist. My husband, Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald, brought his two student collaborators, Madi Duran ’20 and Amanda Lukken ’20, to archives in Alabama last summer as part of their project, Klan and Family in Alabama Reconstruction: The Pickens Family and Racial Terrorism, co-sponsored by CURI and the Institute for Freedom and Community. Maddy Lamers ’21 spent her summer in St. Olaf’s Special Collections working with the Felland Collection of photographs.
Because more of our students want to have archival moments, we are increasingly building those into our humanities curriculum. The faculty just approved a new course in Art and Art History called Topics in Museum Studies designed so that students can “engage with museum practices.” The History Department’s new public history track is designed to introduce students to the ways people engage in the practices of public history, including an internship that, for most students, will turn out to be at an archive.
We are a curatorial society. We rely on evidence and examples to tell stories, to document the past, assess our present, and plan our future. Our students want to be part of it.
We are a curatorial society. We rely on evidence and examples to tell stories, to document the past, assess our present, and plan our future. Our students want to be part of it. Archival work is a way that they can combine the skills they learn in humanities classes with content that engages them where, heretofore, most either had to commit to teaching as a career choice or work that drew more heavily on humanities skills than content. But to work at an archive requires content knowledge, practical skills, and familiarity with the best archival practices.
Our humanities students will be the beneficiaries of our archival mania. Some will do internships locally at archives, like my student, Vic Fesenmeyer ’21, who will spend his January sorting through the Northfield Arts Guild’s attic, bringing order to 60 years of playbills, newspaper clippings, and posters. Some will go from the Hill straight into jobs at historical archives, museums, or libraries. Others will enter professional programs and, like Mark Dimunation or Jessica Ballard ’13, currently part of the archival residency program at the University of Illinois, become true public humanists.
Every day the past grows longer. Every day, despite our best efforts to be mindful of resources, we still amass more paper, create more objects, and, apparently, acquire more outdated music delivery systems and buttons. Archival work IS a growth profession.
Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.