July 6, 2010

Archive Envy

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?


Quincy D. Newell said...

Some of my favorite archives have actually been the big, institutional ones. While working on my dissertation/book, I got to visit the Bancroft a couple times, and became friends with one of the staff there. David and I bonded over our mutual love of baseball, but I think he also specialized in adopting young researchers. He made his own bread and sometimes brought sandwiches for me (as well as the lifeguards at the pool where he swam in the mornings, and other grad students working at the archive). And the place itself was a beautiful location to work -- the reading room was large and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in all that wonderful California light. I haven't been back since they retrofitted the place for earthquakes, but I hope to have an excuse to go there again soon!
I also spent about a month one summer at the Archivo General de la Nacion (General Archive of the Nation, or AGN) in Mexico City. As a research experience this wasn't the smoothest: to get a photocopy of something, one had to mark the beginning and the end in the volume, then fill out a form in quintuplicate. I always had to fill it out twice because, no matter how hard I pressed, I could never get past the third layer of paper. Then, let's see, one left a copy in the copy room, took another copy out of the building to the cashier, brought back the "paid" slip, and then waited. And waited. And waited. For days. But the place was also very cool because it was in a building that used to be a prison -- a PANOPTICON -- so each section was housed in a different arm of the prison. In the arm I was working in, the documents were kept in the cells. And the American researchers formed a wonderful impromptu social group, going out for lunches and spending afternoons together when the archive closed unexpectedly for staff meetings and the like. So despite the frustrations of the bureaucracy, it was a lovely place for a research stint.

Neil J. Young said...

I spent two months at the LDS Archives in the heart of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. This is a huge, impressive archive, and I gathered lots of useful research. That said, there are some operational practices that make the place a bit of a challenge at times. For one, they don't have any online presence (or didn't a few years ago when I was there), and I didn't have any very successful email exchanges with archivists before I arrived. So I literally showed up not sure what I would find - not knowing if I would need to be there two days or the two months I ended up taking. Once there, many of the collections were off limits to me. A lot of the materials are listed as "restricted" and for these you must submit a separate application for each explaining why you want to look at the collection. You then wait to hear back if a committee has allowed you to look at the materials. Of the restricted collections I asked to look at I'd say at least half of them were denied to me. Sometimes I got an explanation that the materials hadn't been processed yet, or they were restricted until a future date, or I couldn't see them because I wasn't a member of "The Church." Other times, I got no explanation but just a simple denial of request. In many ways this was frustrating, as the researcher in one is all the more intrigued to know about the mysteries one can't investigate. But in other ways it was a nice enforced limitation on a research project that was in many ways already overwhelming.

The facilities are terrific there. Though nearly all the collections are on microfilm so you have to struggle with those blasted relics and have to spend lots of time transcribing anything you want to keep. I don't think there were any microfilm machines that made copies when I was there, but perhaps that has changed too.

There's also pretty tight security on the place. You have to interact with a friendly security guard every morning. At the end of every day he would say to me, "Good night, Brother Young." I didn't have the heart to correct him.

Brandi Denison said...

My favorite archive in researching my dissertation is at the Denver Public Library. The librarians are friendly and genuinely interested in researchers' projects. Like the Bancroft library, the special collections room is light and airy. The best part of the library is at the center of the collections room: a giant, old-style card catalog. A WPA project, this is a hand-written subject catalog of Colorado's 19th and early 20th century newspapers. It is intuitive, informative, and unmatched by computer databases.