A good archivist goes a long way

And so do reasonable archive policies. After the Thanksgiving holiday, I took a trip down to the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas to conduct some research for my dissertation at the Leonard H. Axe Library. Of particular interest to me was the library’s Special Collections Department‘s holdings on Julius Wayland. Julius Augustus Wayland (1854-1912) was a renowned socialist in his day. He was the founding editor of the newspapers The Coming Nation and Appeal to Reason and also helped found the Ruskin Co-operative Association, a utopian colony in Tennessee. If you recognize Wayland’s name at all I imagine it’s in association with Appeal to Reason, as this was the paper that hired Upton Sinclair to do an investigative piece on the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Sinclair, of course, later became famous for penning a novel based upon his work–The Jungle.

Wayland committed suicide in 1912, but he lived a life that is representative of the experiences of many 19th century radical reformers. He was inspired by the major works of Laurence Gronlund and Edward Bellamy, who both advocated a “softened” form of socialism that emphasized brotherly cooperation over class division and conflict as the solution to the ills of a society experiencing jarring transformations. This “softened” socialism, often termed Christian socialism due to its adherents’ rejection of atheism and reliance on Christian rhetoric to promote their beliefs, appealed to many 19th century American social reformers. Christian socialism was not only much more palatable given the negative popular associations attached to socialism; it was also viewed by adherents as a means to make society more just, return Christianity to its “proper” place in society, and redirect the United States to its “true” path.

I could babble on about all of this for quite some time–it IS my passion after all–but my primary purpose in writing this post is actually to discuss how grateful I am that the institution I visited had such a capable and helpful archivist (Mr. Randy Roberts) AND some very reasonable policies with regard to their materials. It is one thing to locate an institution with the materials one needs for their research and quite another to arrange a visit, actually find all the materials one needs, be able to examine all the materials thoroughly, and be certain one has not overlooked anything. Research funding is crucial. All scholars know that without funding, one is extremely limited in the scholarship she or he is able to produce (and hence the jobs she or he is eligible to obtain). I was fortunate enough to secure some funding for my trip and naturally wanted to make the most of it. I was able to do so (1) because Mr. Roberts was kind enough to sort through and pull materials he believed would be of interest to me and (2) because the library has a liberal policy regarding the use of digital cameras in its archives.

Experience has taught me that it is always a good idea to communicate with a librarian or archivist at the institution one intends to visit well in advance of the actual trip. At large, busy institutions sometimes the best one can do is e-mail or speak with an intern, assistant, or student worker, but whenever possible one should attempt to make contact with an experienced archivist or librarian. When I visited the Newberry Library in Chicago, for example, I was able to gain the contact information of a leading archivist through a mentor. This turned out to be critical to the success of my trip, as the materials I wanted to examine were completely uncatalogued and required the inside knowledge of an archivist to locate. For my visit to Pittsburg State’s Leonard H. Axe Library, I communicated with Mr. Roberts several times in the months leading up to my visit and when I arrived he had most of what I needed waiting on a cart for me to review. Most institutions–particularly the smaller ones–appreciate any enthusiasm about their collections. Treating Mr. Roberts with a great deal of respect and constantly expressing my gratitude for assistance certainly didn’t hurt either. Enthusiasm, humility, and professionalism can go a long way in aiding the budding scholar in her or his research.

I was also very pleased (and relieved) that the Leonard H. Axe Library permitted the use of both laptops and digital cameras in its Special Collections Department. Both were instrumental in enabling me to sift through all of the materials I needed in the time–and with the money–I had available. Many archival institutions still forbid the use of cameras, fearing either damage to their materials or that allowing visitors to photograph their holdings will lead to wholesale “bootlegging” of the past. I suppose both these fears are not entirely unfounded. There are certainly materials that ought not be handled or imaged in the original, save by trained professionals, and there are probably some dishonest researchers out there who would be unscrupulous in their use of imaged materials. Think of the stories of archive visitors tearing relevant pages out of books to take them home or making notes in the margins of centuries old tomes. I am nonetheless suspicious of the claim that allowing researchers to bring their digital cameras into the archive will spell the end of archives as we know them. Will some abuse the images they were allowed to capture? Yes, certainly, but these individuals will likely be made to answer at some point and find not only their professionalism but also their trustworthiness as a scholar in question. Does this mean all researchers are to be relegated to the status of would-be thieves and that scholars in training are to be limited to only those items they can read and take notes on in the time they are seated in the archive, pencil and paper in hand? Surely not. Surely there is some middle ground. I for one hope that every institution I visit in the journey toward my dissertation is one that does all it can to promote the best use of its materials by supporting the needs of its scholar visitors.

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