Adventures in the Archives, Part 2

Adventures in the Archives, Part 2

Adventures in the Archives, Part 2

Now that I’ve made all the “easy” finds, I’m facing the more difficult, and yet more enthralling, task of digging in deeper and finding the materials that aren’t so readily available.

Technology has obviously made so many things easier; I would not have been able to accomplish this project 50 years ago. But there is nothing like being in an archive in person, especially when you don’t know what you might uncover.

I’m not known for my sparkling conversation at cocktail parties (heck, I don’t even go to cocktail parties), but I can lose myself in a dusty archive and not realize that hours have passed.  I spent an afternoon at Pilgrim Hall recently, digging through some family papers in the hopes of turning up something on Austin. Hours passed before I found anything, but it was an intriguing find.

Pilgrim Hall, America’s oldest continually operating museum. If you look closely at the bottom of the columns, you’ll see the windows for the archive rooms.

I discovered Austin’s name in a random old will; the benefactor was forgiving a loan of money to her.  It’s yet another clue about Austin’s financial situation and thus her need to publish a certain type of writing to make a living. If I hadn’t gone through every page of that collection, I wouldn’t have found that. Plus, it gave me another name and another connection to work with.

On that same trip, I also visited the Concord Free Public Library, where I spent a few hours looking through the town’s tax assessment records. They were massive, and the curator got a good workout hauling them out for me that day. But it all paid off; I was able to verify the Austin’s property throughout their years in Concord, as well as a few other odd details I’m still trying to work out. I could only have found that information in person and after several hours of work.

And I only found it because the curator suggested them as a possibility. There is no better resource for a researcher than a helpful and knowledgeable librarian. I was at the Boston Public Library last summer looking for a few newspaper articles in the databases. Had a librarian not mentioned the card catalogue to me, I never would have checked it, assuming it was covered on their online catalogs.

I need to get this shirt before my next research trip!

As it turned out, I found a rare copy of one of Austin’s novels dedicated to the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I didn’t even know that she knew him before that discovery. It’s evidence of a connection, but also evidence of her business savvy in trying to bring her work to the attention of famous and influential critics.

The librarians and curators know the systems at their institutions, and there is no substitute for that. It’s not just cataloging systems that have evolved; topics and points of interest have changed drastically too. Early archivists working with Southern plantation documents, for example, did not consider the ways later researchers might use those papers to trace slave families. So anyone going by dated categories in those archives might miss crucial documents.

But it takes time, money, and effort to update catalogues and finding aids and get them into accessible databases. Most archives are already woefully under-resourced, and organizations that provide grants for archives and researchers like the National Endowment for the Humanities face defunding, so the situation isn’t likely to improve any time soon.

That’s not just frustrating for researchers, but for archivists and librarians too. After all, they’ve dedicated their careers to preservation, and to be constantly faced with these shortfalls has to be disheartening.

While in Plymouth, I spoke to several archivists who told stories of dealing with frustrated researchers. People would contact them for information on a certain subject, and when the archivist explained that such material was not available, due to any of the problems described above, they got angry and even nasty. We expect everything to be easily accessible these days, and it’s hard for some people to understand when it is not.

I’m guilty of that a bit myself. I know that there is vital material for my research hiding in archives, especially in Plymouth, but I can’t get my hands on it, for a variety of reasons. That is incredibly frustrating, to say the least. But I’m learning to be patient, and I’m hopeful that I will get them eventually. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the thrill of the chase.

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