I know, I’m becoming tiresome for always nagging you to get your sorry behinds into the archives and start digging, as opposed to relying on on-line databases and published sources for your historical research. But, here’s why, friends: Barbara Austen, the Florence S. Marcy Crofut Archivist at the Connecticut Historical Society, has an interesting essay at Common-Place about her efforts to apply “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) in making the CHS collections more accessible to researchers. When she arrived at the CHS in 2004, this is what she found:
Armed with a pad of paper and several pencils, I systematically inspected every shelf in the manuscript stacks—43 ranges with approximately 1,276 shelves—which took a year to examine, record, and put into a searchable database of more than 18,000 records. That was while still doing my regular duties—answering reference questions and arranging and cataloging newly acquired collections. For the inventory, I opened every box and every volume to record very basic information, like the call number, the creator (author) of the collection, a brief title with dates (such as “Diary, 1750″), whether there was a record of this being a gift or a purchase, whether or not there was any organization to the collection, and a brief note on the size or extent (1 box; 30 volumes; 10 cartons). I also went through all 24 volumes of our accession records looking for manuscript gifts and purchases. Then I checked our card catalog and the online catalog (which has items added to the collection since 1984) to determine if researchers could find the collections using the tools already at hand.
What I found during the inventory both fascinated and appalled me. Some collections with obviously early documents had never been touched! The papers were still folded into little tri-fold bits, tied together with string or ribbon. Who knew what they contained? I was also fascinated at how carefully certain collections were cataloged, down to the item level—each letter had been individually described in the card catalog and sometimes in the online catalog. These records were for letters or documents related to individuals like Silas Deane, Oliver Wolcott and other great white men. Other important collections had no catalog record at all. This lack of access astounded me, even though several cataloging projects had preceded me, such as reporting collections to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, adding 96 finding aids (narrative guides) to Chadwyck-Healey’s National Inventory of Documentary Sources, OCLC (the national online database of library holdings) and 30 finding aids available on our web site using special encoding, which was completed in 1999.
The inventory made it very obvious that over a third of the manuscript collections (5,542) had no records in the online catalog; nine percent (1,520) had no record at all; and ten percent (1,860) had never been organized (processed) for researchers to use. Unless you had access to browse the closed stacks, as I did, there was no way to know these collections existed, and there were no plans to provide non-staff access to the inventory.
This is why we love archivists–go read Austen’s full report of what she accomplished at the CHS. (At least, this sounds like a good plan to me–as opposed to waiting for the Magic Funding Fairy to make it possible for traditional archival processing, since ze will probably never arrive.) Perhaps the biggest reason why some of us have been told that “we can’t do [this or that kind of] history because there are no sources” is because of the historic biases that have shaped curatorial practice, plus the absence of resources now to make archival materials searchable and available. I’d be especially interested in hearing from those of you who have worked in archives or who have other insights. (What do you think, Jacob?)