Collecting Records, and Archival Experience Too: Mellon Fellowship at the Bentley Historical Library

By Matt Villeneuve, Doctoral Student in the Department of History

The inestimable historian Barbara Tuchman once remarked that “To a historian, libraries are food, shelter, and even muse.” For those of us at the University of Michigan, we should add one more attribute to Tuchman’s list: laboratory.

The historical library as laboratory – a place for experimentation, creativity, and discovery – succinctly captures what happens at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan every day. Founded in 1935, the Bentley is one of the oldest and most active archives in the country, and it can be said with little hyperbole that the Bentley is at the cutting edge of archival research practices nationwide. When archivists there are not busy working to accession and process records from the University’s history, they are scouring the state for collections that capture the diverse tapestry of sources that make up Michigan state history. In 82 years, they have proven to be quite savvy collectors: today, the Bentley houses more than 45,000 linear feet of archival material, over a million photographs, and 20 terabytes of data – and growing.  In other words, if you laid out all the archival boxes housed in the Bentley end to end, you could walk all the way to Ypsilanti without touching the ground.

This gives us historians plenty to work with!

So you can imagine my excitement when the Mellon Public Humanities program offered to place graduate students for the first time at the Bentley for a Mellon summer fellowship.  As a doctoral student in the department of history, an opportunity to work on the other side of a reading room table was too good to pass up. I was incredibly fortunate to land the gig, and the couple of months working at the Bentley has been a phenomenal experience.

Matt Villeneuve, Doctoral Student in the Department of History

During my time at the Bentley, I met many people, participated in various programs, and worked on several different projects. Over the course of my fellowship experience, I had the chance to meet the Director of the Bentley, Associate Director, and Lead Archivist for Collections Management. I participated in Reference Division meetings, Instruction Team check-ins, and Bentley Engagement and Enrichment (BEE) programming. I worked on updating subject guides, shaping student learning assessment protocols, and building curriculum around the Bentley’s amazing collections. A highlight of my time at the Bentley was when I was offered a chance to lead a class in their orientation to the library.

Throughout this work, I was floored by a particular inquiry: what would it be like to use the archives not just as a place for the storage of records, but as a space for teaching? Luckily for me, the Bentley’s Archivist for Academic Programs & Outreach Cinda Nofziger shares the same curiosity. Together, Cinda and I had a chance to dip into the vast well that is the Bentley’s collections not for the purposes of research, but for instruction. How could we use the Bentley’s unique holdings, spaces, and personnel to teach students in all disciplines how to improve their archival research skills? This mission offered me the opportunity to look at a veritable ocean of primary sources less as the raw material for historical research and instead as invitations for student’s to consider the historian’s craft.

I certainly drank my fill. Over the course of two months, I had a chance to pore over collections as diverse as the records of the nineteenth century treaty proceedings, land claims, maps, ethnographies, photographs, correspondence of territorial agents, regarding Michigan’s indigenous peoples, and twentieth century documents of fair housing activists, municipal officials, black residents, and religious leaders in Detroit, When I was asked by my colleagues what I was up to, I told them I was simply on loan to the Bentley, spending the summer surfing through some of their most compelling holdings.
In the course of molding these materials into compelling curriculum, I sharpened many skills that I had brought with me from my work as a graduate student in the humanities, and added a few new ones to my professional repertoire. I worked simultaneously on self-directed projects and as a part of a larger team with portfolios bigger than my own. I had to practice setting my own deadlines, working at my own pace, all while coordinating the results of this work with others. Not unlike the relationship between student and adviser, I also practiced producing work, soliciting feedback, and making changes. With the trust of Cinda, I got to exercise some of my more creative muscles as a student of the archives that all too often atrophy in the course of life as a graduate student.

Ironically, working at the archives as a researcher is more straightforward than working at the archives as an archivist, because in the latter role, you’re not a lone wolf – you’re part of a team.

To that point, far more valuable to me than any skill I may have developed was the opportunity to forge new relationships with people across disciplines. Working closely with the wonderful archivists at the Bentley was a stark reminder that the archives are the home to penetrating, rigorous, and insightful scholarship unto itself. If we add “laboratory” to the list of Tuchman’s list of virtues of libraries, then those of us in the business of doing history must also regard archivists as fellow creators of knowledge. And why not? When it comes to libraries like the Bentley, the tent is plenty big.

As the crew of the circulation desk frequently say to patrons, “Happy hunting!”

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