The Humans of the Archives

By Alex Honold, Second year PhD student in Education Studies with a focus in history education and learning technologies.

 

Before coming to the University of Michigan, I taught high school US history and world geography. One of my favorite parts about teaching was introducing students to dramatic and thought-provoking primary source materials–diaries, oral histories, Nixon’s insane White House rants. Despite how impressive I thought my collection of primary sources was, I never gave much consideration to where many of those original sources were housed, who put them there, who thought they should be saved, and who eventually decided they were worth digitizing to be discovered by history teachers like me. After completing my fellowship at the Bentley Historical Library, I have come to realize just how important these questions are for helping students (and teachers) to think critically about we construct our histories.

 

During this fellowship I had the privilege of working under the supervision of Cinda Nofziger, the Archivist for Academic Programs and Outreach. One of her main tasks is to think of creative ways that instructors and their students might use archival materials to enhance the content of their course. Therefore, for most of fellowship, I got to dig around the archives for interesting materials and brainstorm lesson ideas for instructors. I was also tasked with developing an assessment model to figure out what students might gain from their experience in terms of course content, understanding historical methods and archival literacy. Although I only spent a short time at the Bentley, in working on these tasks I have learned a tremendous amount of and about history, history education and the archives.

 

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that archival collection and arrangement is very much a human endeavor. Archives are not, as the old positivist historiographers once thought, naturally formed bastions of virginal historical material to be mined and then shaped into historical narratives. Archives are, as the Project Archivist Lilly Carrel explained to me, political and messy. There is no computer algorithm to tell you what documents are worth preserving. And, unlike a traditional library, there is no Dewey Decimal System that explains how the contents of a collection should be organized or described. Archives are created and maintained by people who, although incredibly intelligent, are themselves historical and political actors, living in the same historically situated milieu of beliefs, values, assumptions, and power structures as everyone else. In this sense, archives don’t just feed academic history, they are in ever evolving dialogue with it, all while swimming in a sea of broad social changes.

 

This was not obvious to me at first. When holding an 1862 photograph of Main Street or reading a letter home from a Union soldier, I couldn’t help but think: now this is history. Those artifacts are of course pieces of history. Pieces, however, that were only made accessible to me as a consequence of a century and a half of macro and micro forces and decisions that led to their creation, initial preservation, eventual discovery, and then their donation, appraisal, acquisition, arrangement, processing, and description. It is fair to say then that those were very lucky and privileged pieces of history to have ended up at my reading table. It might seem obvious, but it bears pointing out that an infinitely larger amount of historical stuff from 1862 never made it to the archive–either for purposeful or purely accidental reasons. Through my experiences with the Bentley’s materials and staff, I have come to understand that it’s not enough to get students to find and analyze primary sources. We must also help students to understand that there are limits to what primary sources can tell us and that understanding these limits is just as important a part of the historical process as anything else.

 

The idea that archives don’t preserve all of history is not some dirty secret at the Bentley but a confirmation of the importance of the archival profession. Despite the rapid pace of technological innovation at the archive, the archivist will never be replaced. Without these highly intelligent and reflective people, we would be so inundated with an incoherent mess of historical stuff that doing the work of history in any methodologically sound way would likely be impossible. This means, however, that the decisions made about what gets to pass through the gates of the archive will continue to remain a human decision, subject to human errors and biases; yet, from my time here at the Bentley, I can say with confidence that these are some very impressive humans.