Monday Marvels

While processing collections, archivists occasionally come across documents related to someone who was very famous, powerful, or important in some way. We say that these items have intrinsic value – that is to say, the item is important partially because of its physical characteristics, and a photocopy of it would not offer the same type of value. We look for many types of value in archives; this is one that describes very specific types of materials. For example, a check signed by Louis Armstrong would have intrinsic value because of its physical association with the jazz legend. An actual signature on a document touched by someone with that amount of historical influence would normally be something that people would think is worth keeping, even if they would dispose of a very similar item signed by someone else.

Many times the value we search for is informational in nature – what can people learn from this document? Might anyone be interested in using it as part of a research project in the future? What does it tell us about a specific person or event, and how does that fit in with the larger picture of society in this time period? Sometimes, though, it’s great just to find something that was read by or written to someone with a big name; someone you’ve read about in school or seen on television, or someone you greatly admire for their actions and accomplishments.

The following document doesn’t strictly fall into the realm of intrinsic value (it’s debatable, anyway), but it was written by the ACLS to someone quite well-known: President Lyndon B. Johnson. This letter, written by former ACLS President R. M. Lumiansky, thanks President Johnson for his strong backing of the arts and humanities.

1967.03.01 Letter to LBJ

I suspect the special message to Congress mentioned is the one here; it’s dated just a few days before this letter was written. In this special message, President Johnson asks Congress to approve a $16 million budget for the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, increasing it almost one-third from the previous budget.

It’s always wonderful to see people in power fighting for arts and humanities funding. Although the President did not personally write back to the ACLS, there is a response from his office thanking the organization for its support.

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What have I been reading?

I just moved to Washington, D.C. in May, so the city is still fairly new to me and I’ve been spending a lot of time getting out and enjoying it. This means that I’m reading a bit less than normal, but there are a few (unrelated) things I’ve read lately that I found particularly interesting, both personally and professionally.

1.

Since I’m already talking about D.C., I’ll begin with “Let Me Recount the Ways: Documenting the Poetry Community in Washington, D.C.” by Jennifer King (Archival Issues 33, no. 1: 57-67). This 2011 article documents the efforts of the Special Collections Research Center at the George Washington University to collect the papers of D.C. area poets. The abstract of the article says that the project, called the Washington Writers’ Archive (or WWA, which you can learn more about here), was developed to “discover and explore the ways individual writers’ personal papers and their literary organizations’ records intersect to tell the story of the Washington literary community.”

This article grabbed my attention for a few reasons: 1) as mentioned previously, I’m new to D.C. and trying to drink up as much information as I can about the city; 2) I’m a big fan of poetry and have actually been going to a lot of slam poetry readings here in the District; and 3) it relates to community history, which is of particular interest to me.

There are a few overarching ideas in this article that are great starting points for conversations about the archival field specifically and public history in general. The WWA is a great example of an active collecting policy – the repository is actively seeking out members of the poetry community in order to acquire their work, instead of just taking what comes to them. It goes deeper than that, too: collecting materials is one thing, but the WWA also decided to take a more active role by attending and hosting poetry events and keeping a steady line of communication open with the poetry community in order to develop a sense of trust. This is especially important when trying to document a group that is historically underrepresented in cultural repositories. It takes an enormous amount of effort to keep a project like this going, and usually requires at least one staff member who is passionate about the topic.

Another thing to think about here is the importance of acquiring a variety of formats in order to represent a whole (sometimes very diverse) group. Collecting materials that represent a community, region, topic, or event as fully as possible is a growing trend in cultural repositories (see documentation strategy), and seeking out various types of materials is one way of doing that. This article in particular mentions personal papers, published works, public performances, collaborative works, and sound recordings, to name a few. With electronic records becoming the rule rather than the exception, branching out in terms of format will become increasing important in the coming decades.

These ideas bring up some interesting questions, though: in a time when resources are shrinking (including the number of staff), how do we continue to expand in this way? If we’re unable to continue expanding, which is allowing us to be more inclusive, what will happen to the historic record? How can we go about solving this problem in creative ways that will allow us to continue painting a fuller and more diverse picture of society for future researchers to uncover?

2.

Meredith Hindley: “The Rise of the Machines – NEH and the Digital Humanities: The Early Years.”
Humanities 34, no. 4, 2013

This article talks about the early use of computers in the humanities, which is surprisingly interesting! As an added bonus (for this blog, at least), it details the beginnings of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), in which ACLS played a major part: “In 1963, three organizations – the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa – joined together to establish the National Commission on the Humanities.” Out of these efforts, the NEH was born. I was directed to this article by Steven Wheatley, the current ACLS Vice President. I’ve found some interesting pieces in the collection that relate to the National Commission on the Humanities and the early days of the NEH, so this reading connected very nicely with my processing work. Once you start noticing connections like this, they pop up all over the place.

One of the things I found particularly interesting about this article was the early idea of building a “proto-Wikipedia-JSTOR hybrid” – a single place where people could get encyclopedia entries, scholarly articles, bibliographies, and other similar sources of information. I’ve found a couple pieces of correspondence in the ACLS collection related to the early days of JSTOR (another one of those fun connections!), so it was exciting to read about this idea. It’s amazing that people involved in the humanities – a field that is sometimes seen as a bit old-fashioned – were thinking of such innovative technological ideas years before the internet existed.

The ACLS has a long history of embracing these types of new ideas, and in 2006 they published a report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure in the Humanities and Social Sciences titled Our Cultural Commonwealth. This report was credited by then NEH Chair Bruce Cole as an inspiration to set up the Endowment’s Office of Digital Humanities, one of the major granting agencies offering support to humanities scholars who are embracing technology-driven projects today. Pauline Yu, current ACLS President, makes some great points in the foreword (p. i) of Our Cultural Commonwealth: this is at least the sixth report by the ACLS to focus on technology and scholarship in the humanities (quite impressive!), and the Council started granting funds to scholars using computer technology back in the mid-1960s! Nearly 50 years ago, the statement for that early program said, “of course computers should be used by scholars in the humanities, just as microscopes should be used by scientists.” That sentiment hasn’t changed, and the Executive Summary for Our Cultural Commonwealth (p. 1) spells it out in much more modern terms:

The emergence of the Internet has transformed the practice of the humanities and social sciences—more slowly than some may have hoped, but more profoundly than others may have expected. Digital cultural heritage resources are a fundamental dataset for the humanities: these resources, combined with computer networks and software tools, now shape the way that scholars discover and make sense of the human record, while also shaping the way their findings are communicated to students, colleagues, and the general public.

Like ACLS, the humanities field as a whole is still striving to move forward in this area. There are an incredible number of grant opportunities available for humanities scholars looking to develop projects involving technology, and new ideas are popping up all the time. The previously mentioned Office of Digital Humanities would be a great jumping-off point if you’re interested in learning more about what’s going on in the field today. Additionally, the ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowships application is online right now, if you have any great ideas of your own for spearheading a project.

3.

Feeding Our Young – SAA Presidential Address by Jackie Dooley, New Orleans: August 16, 2013

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) had their annual conference just over a month ago. For her speech, outgoing President Jackie Dooley decided to focus on students and emerging professionals in the archives field. She gave a solid reason for this: of SAA’s 6,100 members, a full half of them are either students or new professionals (in the field for five or fewer years). That’s a lot! Being fairly new to the profession myself, I’ve been following some pretty serious discussions regarding these groups. There’s been a lot of controversy about internships (especially those that are unpaid) and what they mean for the individuals partaking in them as well as the profession in general. This isn’t unique to this specific field, but it should be mentioned that having hands-on experience is incredibly useful and important in archives and museums, and most repositories are non-profits that have very small budgets and therefore rely heavily on volunteers and unpaid interns. Internships are important because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find actual entry-level positions in the field, but repositories taking on interns should remember that these positions should focus on the nourishment and education of the intern rather than the benefit of the repository.

This is a really impassioned speech, and it’s great that Ms. Dooley brought these issues into focus, especially since students and emerging professionals are often overlooked in many fields. She mentions in this speech that we must be open to all industries regardless of our major or background. This is very true, especially for younger generations, and I would argue that it’s a good thing. I have found that having this kind of openness inspires me to be better at all of my jobs, because thinking on a variety of different levels can lead to new and innovative ideas that might not have otherwise occurred to me.

If you’re interested in exploring these topics more, I recommend checking out the SAA Students and New Professionals Roundtable (SNAP), which also has a Twitter account.