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An archivist’s external memory

Being an archivist means always having something new to learn.  This is Arlene.  I’ve been with A&SC for just over 7 years now.  So I’ve got a fairly good grasp on what collections we have–maybe not item or folder level–but it’s rare anymore that I run into a collection where the title/creator doesn’t even sound familiar.  I was reshelving some collections in the vault this morning and this box caught my eye.  It was an older box (you could tell by the faded front where it had received a little too much light exposure in our previous digs) and I really, really didn’t recognize the name on it.  J. H. Murray papers, it said.  So I pulled it off the shelf and brought it out to the research room for a closer look.

The first thing I noticed–and what became my immediate excuse for taking the time to look more closely at the collection–was that it was in a box that was a little too big for it,  so some of the folders were bending a little.  And the labels were falling off the folders (another reason to not use labels on folders) so maybe it was time to rehouse the material.

Nothing terribly promising at first.   A small collection (1/4 cubic foot, once rehoused) from an Alaska territorial legislator, miner, and attorney who lived in the McCarthy area.  Certainly potential based on Joseph Murray’s career activities, but the first several documents I looked at were along the lines of reminders of insurance payments due, advertisements for legal books, that sort of thing.  So I kept going through the few correspondence files and the first handwritten note I came across was kind of charming.  A short letter–clearly dashed off in a hurry–from a fellow miner telling him that he was off to Nizina and he took the dog team and didn’t leave him (Joe) any dog food supplies but Joe could get them from another person for cheap and so on and so forth.  Just average, everyday things you might write to a fellow miner and partner when you’re both out prospecting and might not cross paths reliably but still had to keep in communication.  And then I looked at the signature.  It wasn’t terribly readable (for that matter, most of the note was a little hard to decipher) but the name looked familiar.  And I stared at it for a while and as I did, I figured it out.  Anthony J. Dimond.  Later to be Judge Dimond, Alaska’s territorial representative to Congress.  The source of several place names in Anchorage (Dimond Blvd, Dimond High School).

The collection has a few other letters to Murray from Dimond, not a lot, and none with this kind of slap-dash casual effect.  But the men were clearly friends as well as colleagues, judging by the tone of the letters.

Which all got me to thinking about those headlines you occasionally see.  You know, the ones that say things like “Jefferson letter discovered in archives!” Those things usually make me cringe because it promotes the concept that our materials in our stacks are somehow lost.  And that’s not a very pleasant perspective on collections for an archivist, because it’s not so far from that to the idea that maybe we’re deliberately hiding things.  Maybe some archivists do, but the ones here don’t.  Nor do the ones anywhere else I’ve ever worked.  Perhaps I’m overreacting (okay, so I’m overreacting) but we all know there’s no way that any of us are ever going to describe our collections down to item level so we’re probably going to continue to be stuck with seeing those sorts of headlines for a long time to come.  But in the meantime, how do we promote discovery of our collections?  In this case, I did some editing of the descriptive material in the Murray finding aid and made a point of mentioning Anthony Dimond, but what about his other correspondents whose names weren’t as familiar to me?  Or who had unreadable signatures?

We can approach this in a lot of different ways.  One thing we regularly do is provide a biographical description of the individual whose papers we have. So even if we don’t note the existence of a Dimond letter, a researcher seeking Dimond biographical material is probably going to be aware that Dimond was working in the McCarthy/Nizina area in the early 1910s and so finding the papers of another miner (and later attorney) in the same area, well, chances are the two knew each other.  But how many Dimond biographers could there possibly be?  That’s the benefit to doing the biographical description as part of a finding aid: we don’t want to write finding aids dedicated to the “important guy” school of history because there just aren’t that many biographies that can be written about any one individual.  And lots of researchers are researching other topics that might also be addressed in these records.  Like the Kennecott mine. Or mining in general.  So we say in the bio note that Murray was a one-time miner and attorney working and living in the McCarthy area.  This should allow the Dimond biographer to find this as well as any researchers looking for information about the Kennecott mine.  At least, that’s what we hope.

And in the meantime, now I’ve looked at the collection more closely so I might be able to remember it the next time a researcher comes in and is looking for information that could be represented within it.  Then again, I didn’t read every document in the collection (I’m not that indulgent with my time!) so there’s probably other important information that I missed. Assuming my memory can be trusted–which is a very scary assumption these days–what I’m going to deliberately try and remember is not the details, but the generalities.  A summary, if you will.  But more than a summary.  Not the contents of the few documents I read, but the context.  And the benefit to doing that is when my brain suffers from byte loss and I lose some exact details, maybe I’ll still remember the Valdez/McCarthy/Nizina/miner/attorney portions and do the translation from the research question to the possible sources of information that might assist in answering that research question.  And when I forget even that much, it’s documented in the finding aid.  Which means it’s searchable, online.  An archival version of an external memory drive.  That’s what a finding aid is.  And even better, it’s an external memory that people other than us can read and search.  Which means that they’re also not reliant on not just our memory of document contents, but they’re not reliant on our ability to make logical leaps between a research topic and the types of documents that might be useful to fulfil that research request.   We’re not half-bad at that sort of thing–it’s one of those aptitude things that make archivists archivists instead of file clerks–but we work with a lot of researchers.  Who research in many different disciplines.  And who will always be better at their topic, their discipline, their research process than we can be.  So we try and balance a lot: trying to provide description that will be useful no matter what the disciplinary background of the researcher.  Doing what we can to help, but letting them have access to our external memories so they don’t have to rely on us when we’re not as good at it as they are.

We’re getting better at it every day.  And so here.  One slightly improved external memory drive for the Joseph H. Murray papers.  So when you call/email/walk in the door two weeks from now and I no longer remember his name, you can find it for yourself.

One Comment

  1. What a wonderful post. I, too, cringe when I read about a historic letter being “found in the archives,” and I know most of us archivists are doing all we can, all hours of the day, to make researchers aware of our collections. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to document every item in every collection, especially as more come in regularly that require our attention.

    A great thought-provoking piece. I particularly love these lines: “An archival version of an external memory drive. That’s what a finding aid is. And even better, it’s an external memory that people other than us can read and search.”

    Other disciplines– particularly in the humanities– are very critical of archivists as gatekeepers and guardians who stand between them and the records they need. It’s good for archivists to think more about transparency and accountability– being as open as possible about what we have and how we process and describe collections– while also speaking out– in ways like this– to try and help researchers understand why we don’t have item level description for everything in our collections. And to make them see that we are not intentionally keeping anything from them, we just need more resources (i.e. staff and money) to do our jobs better.

    Thanks, really enjoyed your post.

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