Thursday, April 15, 2010

Documenting the Under-Documented part II

This post continues Documenting the Underdocumented

Who the under-documented are is not always obvious. And, sometimes, the documents of the well-documented are not always preserved for posterity.

Very early in my professional career, I helped in the archives of a well-known inventor and businessman. The archives in which I worked was associated with an independent lab the inventor set up. He also was the founder of a large business that operated separately. The large business kept its archives up to professional standards, with a professional archivist who ensured the history of the company was retained. The independent lab was not run that way and hired a temp, fresh out of school, archivist to run a preservation project that cared for some of the inventor's prized art collection.

When I finished re-boxing and foldering prints, I inquired about the inventor's personal papers. Surely they would want those preserved too? I was brought up to a secretary's closet where many piles of duplicate magazines were kept. The inventor had kept multiple copies of his published articles. I explained that I was concerned about the inventor's personal papers -- maybe he had notebooks that he kept by the side of the bed so he could jot down ideas that came to him in the middle of the night? Maybe he had originals of those published papers somewhere? Maybe he had correspondence to friends and family members? The secretary informed me that when the inventor died, they were ordered to trash those materials. The inventor didn't want private papers to be public. "But," I muttered, "Did anyone consider the value of his thoughts as a person? How his life could provide inspiration to others." All I got were blank stares.

I understand that I was more of an idealist twenty years ago, but what if I had talked to the inventor before he passed away? Can an archivist convince a person of the value of their personal documentation toward a larger good? Should it be a vital part of our job to do just that?

In library school, we were told the story of the Boston University Special Collections. Seeking a collecting niche, the school decided to collect the papers of famous 20th century people. It seemed an ideal collection to support BUs strong College of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences and now seems like an obvious fit. However, in 1963 when the Howard Gottlieb Research Center was founded, many found this idea strange. It was thought that Special Collections archivists should be focusing on old history, not current events and current celebrities. Now, the Center is a premiere repository for 20th century history that would have been lost without forward thinking archivists. They realized that they needed to build a strong focused collection of less obscure documents so that these materials wouldn't be lost in the future. Archivists worked to convince people that they should give BU their personal papers for posterity.

To document the under-documented, archivists need to plan the development of their collections. We need to create a focus. We need to ensure that multiple perspectives are represented within that focus. We need to broaden our perspectives to consider what our neighbors and colleagues are collecting so that we leave no gaps in our work, assuming that someone else is collecting in an area and not considering the reality of full documentation work. Without a plan and partnerships, we are opening ourselves up to losing bits of our history forever. Documenting the Under-documented requires us to see a broad picture and to retain at least a semblance of idealism. An archivist's idealism, and maybe our moral charge, (though I know many reject the idea of us having a principled obligation) tells us that we can collect broadly and thoughtfully, and reminds us that we need to reach out directly to a public that needs to hear our documentation message.

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