Back from the Bosch and back in the saddle again

Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again
Gene Autry, Back in the Saddle Again. Click and it’s in your head. You’re welcome.

Traveling for weeks at a time can be pretty disorienting. It takes you out of your normal routine, places you in unfamiliar situations, demands a lot of physical and emotional energy, generally means your free time is out the window, and can lead to a big game of catch up when you return home. All of this was true for my experience at the 2012 edition of the Bosch Archival Seminar for Young Historians, which I attended from September 2nd to the 16th, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The Bosch was an immensely valuable experience that I will carry with me throughout my academic career, and I’d like to use my next few posts to share some of the details, insight, and information I gained. To begin: what the seminar was about and a tour of the Manseuto Library at the University of Chicago.

The seminar is a yearly cooperative venture between the German Historical Institute (GHI), the University of Chicago’s Department of History, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, and the Robert Bosch Foundation. The 2012 iteration of the seminar brought together doctoral students from a wide variety of backgrounds with the aim of (1) encouraging transnational collaboration and (2) providing participants with an “inside” look at how an array of historical institutions function and are organized. The seminar was led by Dr. Misha Honeck, a Research Fellow at the GHI, whose hard work and enthusiasm kept us all afloat as we made our way through libraries, archives, and museums in Chicago, Madison, Boston, and Washington, D.C. One of our first official stops after becoming acquainted with one another and allowing the international scholars to shake off some of their jetlag was the Mansueto Library.

One of the highlights of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (aside from its swank architecture) is its automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS). 

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Not only is this system very impressive from a technological standpoint; it’s also a prominent experiment in ways libraries and archives can confront the problems of preservation and storage while still providing scholars ready access to research materials. The ASRS allows the Mansueto Library’s patrons to access materials much more quickly than they would be able to at a library or archive that has been forced, for spatial or financial reasons, to store some of its collections offsite. While a request for materials can take days at an institution with offsite storage, it usually takes about 15 minutes or less at the Mansueto. As impressive as the ASRS is though, both it and offsite storage pose browsability problems for patrons. Whenever direct access to the materials is cut off, serendipitous discoveries and connections made via “wandering the stacks” become endangered. A “nearby on the shelf” button in the catalog search results makes up for part of this experience, but not all of it. Still, it was exciting to see the Mansueto’s work to confront a significant problem facing many historical institutions today.

In my next post, I’ll discuss our Bosch group’s thesis workshop and our day with the archivists and curators of the Newberry Library.

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