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Encouraging an archivist

Today I (Arlene) finished description to a collection we received a couple of months ago.  Having this description finished and posted on our website basically makes the collection available to our research audience.  

It’s a small collection, but it’s important, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.  It’s the Lynn McConnell photographs and papers.  See, back in 1977, Lynn McConnell was in California.  And she signed a contract with an agency out of Las Vegas to come to Anchorage and dance as a showgirl at the Kit Kat Club which was at mile 7 of the Seward Highway heading out of Anchorage.  Don’t go looking for it, it’s not there anymore.  She worked in Anchorage at the Kit Kat Club and then at Embers, a club downtown, into 1978.  (It’s not there anymore either.)  And she took a lot of snapshots of her friends and kept a lot of the dance staging shots and such.  And she not only took them, but kept them.  And kept in touch with her dancer friends as they moved on to other places.  They sent her pictures of themselves and let her know what they were doing.  

And about a year ago, Ms. McConnell emailed us.  She’d been cleaning prior to a move and thought that these pictures and clippings and a few documents she’d kept all these years about her time in Anchorage really should be made available through a research institution.  She thought about giving it to an archives in Vegas since some of them have topically related collections, but decided that if she could find an appropriate home for them in Anchorage, she’d do that instead.  And she emailed us, and I said absolutely, we’d love to have them here and to make them available for research.

Here’s why this collection is so important: there are times and places and events that don’t get documented well.  There’s a lot of reasons for that.  Sometimes the documents–image, written, verbal, whatever–don’t get created in the first place.  Sometimes the documents don’t get kept.  And sometimes the archivists don’t think to encourage people to keep them or maybe decide not to collect them. And so on.  Anchorage, during the pipeline boom years, is a time and a place that is documented, to a point anyway, but the Anchorage showgirl scene during the pipeline boom years?  Really not a lot of available material out there.  Sure there’s ads in old newspapers and an occasional anecdote from a comedian working the club scene, but not a lot from the perspective of the women working in the clubs.  Rehearsing, kicking back in the dressing rooms, going skiing at Alyeska, watching drag races, even a wedding.  

There’s danger in allowing times and places and especially groups of people to go undocumented or underdocumented.  And the danger for groups of people is that it becomes easy to start to think of them as groups of people.  We (the generic we) start to objectify or marginalize them and forget to think about people as individuals, friends, dancers, women.  Lynn’s preserving of these materials and ensuring that they went to an archives where they can be made accessible, reminds me as an archivist of one of my responsibilities as an archivist.  It’s not just about seeking out the easy to find papers like politicians or writers or anthropologists to make sure those are preserved.  As important as those are and as important as it is to keep them, it’s just as important that we work to preserve the record of lives and events of people who maybe weren’t in the headlines of the paper every day.  If I turn down or fail to seek out papers and documents and photographs of women like Lynn McConnell, I’m in essence choosing to end the memory of her and her friends for people in the future.  While we often say that we’re appraising records partly based on what researchers will want, we also have to remember that if we choose not to retain it, future researchers won’t be able to study it because we won’t have left them the option.  Who said archivists weren’t powerful?  

Well, this archivist often finds that perspective scary and a bit too little reality and far too much drama.  It’s not all about the decisions I make: after all, hundreds of years of documents all over the world have survived just fine not in the care of professional archives and archivists.  Lynn McConnell’s papers did just fine for at least 30 years without our intervention and probably would have done fine for as long as she chose to keep them. One of the things we do offer that’s often different from records not kept in archives is open access to those documents.   We provide a safe habitat for the records, and description, and a place for people to come do their research.  That’s not always so easy for an individual keeping their family papers.  

Thankfully we don’t have to go it alone and we’re not making all the decisions about what remains ourselves.  We have people like Lynn McConnell who have done most of the work of creating and keeping the records and going the step further to seek out a home that can provide access to researchers for the materials she’s so carefully preserved.  Thanks Lynn.  We’re pleased to ensure your photographs and documents are available to researchers for many long years to come.  Thank you for giving us the opportunity to do so.  Oh, and if anybody wants to take a look at that collection description and see if these documents might relate to your research, it’s available online.  The Lynn McConnell photographs and papers.

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