Monday, April 18, 2011

The Only Archivist in the Room

I was up and out with the sun this weekend
to attend the NEHA conference in Worcester
I very much enjoyed attending the spring session of the New England Historical Association Conference this weekend. I recently joined NEHA to widen my professional circle. As a proponent of cross-professional collaboration in the cultural heritage fields, this seems like an important group with whom to be networking. Composed primarily of academic historians, I figured this group would present me with alternate views about working with archival resources. I was right and also pleasantly surprised by my interactions.

The early conference sessions were presented by students pursuing PhDs in history fields. The first session I attended included a student presenter who had written a paper about a "Suffrage Coffee House" in Ayer, Massachusetts. She described the suffragettes in town who met there and the MIT educated female architects who renovated the coffee house building. My ears perked up because of past work I have done with the papers of Ida Annah Ryan, the first women to graduate from MIT with a Master's in Architecture and an active suffragette. (I've even written briefly about Ida Annah Ryan in this blog.) Some of her records are housed in Waltham and I was able to share this with the writer at the end of the session. She seemed genuinely interested in pursuing the paper trail to see if there is a strong connection to her architects. I felt like I was doing an archivist's work outside of the archives, steering a researcher to records that would help her scholarship. There is a lot to be said for archivists making themselves more visible outside of institutions in this way.

The second speaker in my morning session discussed clothing of middle class women in the late 19th century. (As an aside - It seems my month has been packed with clothing history, something to which I paid little attention before. My mind is now whirling with ideas about fashion's place in an historical context.) The student based her talk on a clothing collection that has been passed down through her family. She has photos of her great-great grandmother wearing some of the clothes at her home in Jamaica Plain Massachusetts. The story wove ideas about femininity, middle class identity, home life, shopping, advertising, and more. I was fascinated by the interplay of the clothing artifacts with the photos she showed. I was very curious about the provenance. How did she know from whom all these clothes came?  The photos were a strong clue, but was there more documentation? The student said that she did talk with her advisor about this problem. She is not sure if her ancestor owned the clothes that she was photographed in or if they were borrowed. She also does not have photos of the woman in all of the items that came down to her. She recognized that some of them may be from another person, perhaps her great-great grandmother's sister, who was also a relatively small woman. I also asked about the storage of the clothes. Were they passed down in a big (romantic) trunk or were they hanging in a closet. She laughed and said that they were in cardboard boxes. It was clear that my questions were outside the initial curiosity of my fellow conference attendees. Here I was focused on the objects and their care as much as I was attentive to the story.

It was kind of nice being the only archivist in the room. I realized that I could learn a lot from the historians and that I have a lot to offer them. At lunch I sat at a table with the plenary speakers. These included professors and a U.S. park ranger. (I was not the only non-scholar, but I was the only archivist.) We talked about students and how they learn. We talked about  a web site one of the professors has designed to link these students to online information about primary sources. The plenary session focused on immigration, so these historians are very interested in the types of resources I encounter every day that talk about the "average" person's experience.

I hope that my membership in NEHA will be expanding for me and for the group. There are over 800 members, so I'm sure there must be another archivist among them - at least I hope so. My focus on the protection of resources dovetails nicely with their work. I hope to raise awareness about how similar we are and how we can help each other. Working with historians (and genealogists, and oral historians, and film documentary professionals, etc, etc.) will strengthen our ability to preserve and promote our heritage. Thank you NEHA folks for a wonderful time!

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