As a media historiographer, I’m keenly aware that most of what I use for my own research remains offline, scattered between far-flung archives. This has meant numerous archival trips, from the Library of Congress to Wisconsin’s Port Washington Historical Society. I carefully study finding aids and chat with archivists before my arrival – and then hope for the best.
At other times, I’ve taken calculated risks. On an East Coast trip to a number of New York-area archives, I wasn’t sure a particular collection I’d heard about even existed. While still a graduate student at the University of Texas in Spring 2006, I got on a plane from Austin to New York City.
I arrived at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, begging to see a collection that the librarian in front of me couldn’t find in her online catalog. I had heard of these materials via ARSClist, the Association for Recorded Sound Collections listserv. A discographer from the New York area had seen the materials decades before and suggested I check into them. My emails to the NYPL hadn’t been answered, but I decided that I could take a chance on the lead, since I had other stops to make in New York.
While I talked with the librarian, an archivist passed by and heard the conversation. He took me aside, explained that they did indeed have uncataloged Columbia Records materials. He slapped a “visitor” sticker on my chest and took me several stories below Lincoln Center. Then, he showed me several boxes, explaining they hadn’t yet been cataloged – adding that I could photocopy anything in the boxes for my purposes if I wrote what each box contained on the outside of the box. I happily obliged.
An email and a kind archivist had made this possible. I offered assistance in identifying for future archivists what the small collection contained. I was thrilled to have found something so remote from most researchers. But while I was feeling so fortunate to have landed in the basement of the NYPL, it led me to wonder how researchers might get better access to archival materials, especially since cataloged materials are often not that much easier to locate.
Providing access while protecting and preserving materials is a constant concern for archives. Trying to take care of collections with small staffs and a huge workload is another. While access issues are constantly evolving, the obstacles faced aren’t easy to overcome. Just coordinating with varying archives, most of which have different policies and approaches, has been an intimidating proposition.
My hopes lie on an ambitious digital humanities project coordinated by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year, they’ve partnered with UC-Berkeley’s School of Information and the California Digital Library to create SNAC, the Social Networks and Archival Context Project, a clearinghouse for archival information. You can find the prototype here.
This is a wonderful initiative, which may well help in connecting diffuse resources. But this project doesn’t – and probably can’t – coordinate even more unlikely resources held by small and remote archives. On a research trip to the Wayne County Historical Society in Richmond, Indiana, while researching the Gennett Records label, I found a notebook of early television research by Charles Francis Jenkins. How many TV researchers will ever stumble upon that?
Perhaps researchers can help bridge gaps in sharing information about these smaller archives, unlikely to be included in larger projects like SNAC. For all I know, work has started on such a sharing project, which would link up disparate resources at little-known institutions. I’m happy to share what I know about such a complicated archival puzzle.