If we all are to take Sister Agnes’s advice and consult manuscript archival material, we all must rely on the goodwill and advice of librarians and archivists. I have never run into any problems getting access to the sources I wanted to see, since my research has been in U.S. and Canadian libraries and archives, some public but mostly private, reasonably well-funded and staffed by professionals. Other, less affluent countries can’t offer scholars the same access and professionalism–for example, the chair of my department tells stories of research in Venezuela, where the archives he works in may be randomly closed because of a saint’s feast day, other religious festivals that may close the archives for weeks on end, or simply because they don’t have the money to turn the lights on. I have heard similar stories about research in provincial Russian archives from other friends.
I’ve been fortunate, in that most of the librarians, archivists, and curators who have assisted me have been really interested in my research and eager to share their particular knowledge with me–their expertise has unquestionably enriched my research. But, I have heard other people’s stories–and they have told stories about archivists who see themselves as gatekeepers of the archives rather than ambassadors between primary sources and researchers. For example–Notorious, Ph.D. tells a story of an archivist who maybe–maybe–is coming to see her as a serious scholar because of her persistence over the past decade, but for much of that decade, he wasn’t especially friendly or helpful to her.
The worst story about archival gatekeeping I’ve ever heard has nothing to do with lack of resources, but rather, with the fact that a quirky personality was permitted to assume too much authority over records owned by a major research library. In the 1990s, a graduate student I knew went to a large city in New England over her spring break to consult a library at a university that the Boston Globe used to call World’s Greatest University. She was writing a dissertation about gender and masculinity in the U.S. Progressive Era, and wanted to consult the papers of a Very Famous Former U.S. President at this library at WGU. She had contacted them in advance of her trip to ensure that the papers would be available to her, and they assured her that yes, she could come up to WGU any time to consult those papers. When she arrived and announced herself, there seemed to be a lot of shuffling around and delays in getting the documents and volumes she had ordered. Finally, one of the librarians took her aside and said, “we’re terribly sorry, but we have a colleague who takes a strong interest in Very Famous Former U.S. President, and he likes to ‘interview’ all of the researchers who want to consult his papers. But, he’s not here today–he’s on sick leave and we don’t know when he’ll be back–and unfortunately, he has his own system for organizing the papers and we don’t know where he has put them. So, you’ll have to come back when he can help you.”
Research trip over! My fear is that even if Mr. Quirky had been there, the graduate student may not have passed his “interview” if she didn’t demonstrate the requisite level of hero worship of Very Famous Former U.S. President Mr. Quirky might require of researchers to whom he grants a full audience with the archival resources. This is something that historians of gender and sexuality have to be especially concerned about–because of course, there are a lot of Very Famous Former U.S. Presidents whose biographies have been revised lately because of revelations about their sex lives, and these revisions have not been received graciously by all.
What are your experiences in the archives? Have you ever been denied access to papers because of suspicion about the nature of your research?
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