by James Bennett
My summer consists mostly of being a stay-at-home dad this year. It is unquestionably time well spent, but that doesn’t mean that occasional sibling squabbling doesn’t send me dreaming of archives! Alas, my forays into archives of religion in the American West will have to wait until the dog days of August, or even September (which is, here on the West Coast, the best weather of the year!). Fortunately, the quarter system (an academic phenomena largely of the West?), facilitates late season archiving when my children are already back in school.
But back to archives: what are some of your memorable archive experiences researching religion in the American West? I’m thinking here not of the biggies (the Huntington, the Bancroft, the Beinecke, etc.), but the little, out of the way treasure troves—not just of documents, but of knowledgeable and friendly archivists. The previously unknown sources (at least to me) that such places might contain is exciting, but there is something stimulating about just working in such an environment.
I’m still in the process of shifting my scholarly energy from the South to the West, so have yet to experience this while working on the West. I did, however, have several such experiences working on my first project. Perhaps the most memorable was the archives of the Josephite Fathers in Baltimore, MD. Father Pete Hogan, who served as the Josephite archivist for over forty years, had collected the largest repository of black Catholic materials in the country, all stored and organized according to a classification system he invented. It was controlled chaos. Fr. Hogan was gracious to a fault, generous in sharing whatever he knew and whatever he had. But for someone used to working in the strictly regulated environment of traditional archives and reading rooms, the Josephite archives were quite a shock: before proceeding down to the basement archive, you could grab and cup of coffee and a doughnut and bring them with you! A visit always included lunch. Once you received the dot-matrix tractor feed sheets of paper showing the classification numbers of the documents you wanted, you just got up, wandered through the basement and pulled the archive boxes you needed off the shelves yourself. If you needed a copy, you copied it yourself. If you needed to work late, you could stay in the basement and turn off the lights yourself when you were done. But most enjoyable, was being part of the banter with Fr. Hogan and his assistants and the recipients of their knowledge and insights. Gentle teasing and insight reminiscing replaced the sacred silence that dominates most reading rooms.
For me, one of the most exciting parts of embarking on a new project is anticipating the new places I’ll do my research. What treasure troves of religion in the American West have you come across?