Author Archives: Corinne Tamler

At the NYPL: Imaginary Archives and Dog Princes

The introductory exercise made for us by Mary Catherine and Tali (“If you could be any archive, real or imagined, what archive would you be?”) was just as nerdy as it sounds—and a great entry point to conversation about what archives are, what they contain, how they are organized, and how they can be used. The presentation that followed offered clear and concrete tools for searching the NYPL special collections and a broader array of archives across the United States. There were enough details (about Boolean searches, for example) that I felt like I’d come away with some concrete tools, but not so many that it was overwhelming. Overall, this was the clearest, most engaging, most accessible, and most immediately useful of the archive tours we’ve done. I left feeling prepared not just to think about doing research at the NYPL, but to actually begin doing it.

I didn’t spend as much time as I could have circulating among the objects that were pulled for us from the archives because paging through the 1894 records of dog licenses from the ASPCA was endlessly fascinating. Tali handed me a prompt card as I looked at it that asked what disciplines might make use of this object, and the provocation guided me as I turned the pages.

There were, of course, straightforward pieces of information you could glean, such as the popularity of particular dog breeds. Mapping the dogs’ addresses could be interesting as well in terms of density of dog ownership. But one might also pay attention to the names of the dogs (why such a rash of “Princes” and the occasional “Princey”—what sociocultural event might this coincide with, or is the popularity of canine Princes relatively stable over time? What about “Nero,” also a common name, which in a cursory Google search now turns up pages of police dogs? And what might be gleaned from dogs whose given names are racial slurs?). Or there might be a use for the list of owners’ names and addresses, recorded only incidentally as dog owners but of course individuals (or data points) in their own right. You could also place this ledger in a context of other ledgers or recordkeeping practices from the time. The way it’s possible to use the ledger depends, too, on whether others are available to look at, and how wide a spread of dates they represent; this particular ledger represents just two months in 1894, circumscribing the scope of dates pretty narrowly.

Zooming back out from my preoccupation with this object—which might also have something to do with the fact that I’m a new dog owner—I very much appreciated the prompt cards (with deep attention to detail, printed on recycled “historical” library catalog cards!) like the one mentioned above that encouraged us to think more deeply, or think differently, about the objects we were encountering. Bringing a rolodex of such cards into an archive when beginning your research would be a nice way of casting your net wide and exploring your material from an unexpected angle.

Field trip to the Morgan Library

I found the format of our visit to the Morgan Library to be very effective. We began with an overview of collections and research procedures from Head of Reader Services María Isabel Molestina that painted a clear picture of what it would be like to do research at the Morgan, from the broader question of how to secure permission and reading space to the quotidian specifics (pick a locker; wash your hands!). This made the idea of doing primary source research at the Morgan feel accessible and open.

Then we moved from that procedural overview to a focus on several case studies using materials pulled for us from the collection. The curator’s enthusiasm for the materials and the kinds of questions and problems they posed was palpable; to me, that conveyed a sense of the real joy of doing archival research once you’re deeply engaged with your material(s). In our Schomburg visit from the week before, we spoke in generalities about issues like digitization and when/why having access to original documents is desirable, but without concrete objects that instantiated these issues, it wasn’t so easy to imagine concrete instances in which they would apply. At the Morgan, we saw firsthand a letter not included in a published historical record that appears and presents itself as a comprehensive print edition of correspondence in the collection from which it comes: an example of the way the print record can actually obscure objects in the archive by simultaneously ignoring them and making it seem unnecessary to return to the originals at all.

I very much appreciated, too, the constellation of possibilities represented by the full Paris Review interview draft in conjunction with the published interview and the available audio files. This case study showed that even recent, thoroughly archived material can raise potentially unanswerable questions.

Dawnland Voices: an emergent indigenous digital archive

dawnland voices heaer

I chose to focus on Dawnland Voices because of its focus on archiving and presenting New England indigenous writing that includes writing from members of the Penobscot Indian Nation, a tribe whose input is crucial to a project I’m working on that focuses on the Penobscot River. Linked to and expanding on a print anthology published in 2014, currently houses both a literary magazine showcasing contemporary indigenous writing, and an emergent (i.e. still in process, or intended to be still in process) digital archive that was/is assembled as a collaborative effort between tribal authors, tribal collections, and scholars/students. The book’s editor and one of the collaborators on the digital archive, Siobhan Senier, describes the project’s impetus, with its origins in a lack of digitized indigenous writing:

We wanted a living document—one that could expand to include some of the vibrant pieces we could not fit in the book, one that could be revised and reshaped according to ongoing community conversation. And we wanted to keep presenting historic materials alongside new (in this case born-digital) texts, the better to highlight the long history of Indigenous writing in this region.

The website itself foregrounds the literary magazine; this is where you land via the primary domain name. To find the digital archive, you either need to notice the small link in the header that reads “Indigenous New England Digital Collections,” or navigate to the “About” page, which explains and links to the site’s two components. This right away suggests a focus on the project of presenting contemporary voices, and locates the archive as a site for a more limited audience, one that knows what it’s looking for. The site makes its partners and funding explicit, important for a project that intends to decolonize the idea of the archive: it’s key to show potential audiences, both indigenous and non-indigenous, that appropriate collaborative channels have been followed, and to recognize the labor of the contributors. There is information about how to get involved in the project, underscoring the set intention that it would grow and function as a true community-based and -generated resource.

Ultimately, exploring the archive, you get the sense that it hasn’t managed to expand beyond its pilot phase. Senier writes about this phase, which was supported by a grant from the NEH that enabled the editors to work with three representative partner collections, one at a tribal museum, one at a tribal office, and a cluster of private collections belonging to four elder tribal members who have gathered themselves under the title “Indigenous Resources Collaborative.” After this grant was spent, there seems to have been little activity. What the site presents is therefore a framework for digitizing tribal archival materials, and representative samples (currently 189 items), along with a number of simple, straightforward ways of exploring these materials: by item, by collection (there are currently 3 collections), by nation, or on a map. The map was created using Google Maps, and the website looks like a WordPress site, although there is no information about the technology used to build the site other than a link to the company that designed it. The pages for each item in the collection contain useful basic information: contributor, citation, a link to the document itself, an embed code, a geolocation, a link to the collection(s) to which it belongs.

Key concerns of a project like this include the ongoing discussion around digital repatriation, a term that at its best refers to efforts made by large traditional/colonial archives to increase tribal access to tribal items in their collections that cannot safely be physically repatriated to the tribe in tandem with ongoing efforts towards physical repatriation and collaboration with tribes on stewarding their own heritage. At its worst, it is a kind of coverup term that allows an institution to say it’s participating in repatriation efforts and complying with NAGPRA.

The site’s seemingly indefinitely arrested pilot state also raises questions around whether there might be a mismatch between the project’s intent and the needs/desires of its target audience. Because this project would need to rely on contributions from an expanded network of tribal collaborators in order to move beyond its pilot state, this is a more pressing issue than with an archival project with clearly-defined curators on the one hand and audience on the other, that doesn’t rely on this kind of back-and-forth (that doesn’t position itself as “emergent”). Senier notes the importance of social media for tribal members and institutions, an observation my personal experience can anecdotally corroborate.

Facebook is a proprietary, and notoriously problematic platform, especially on the issue of intellectual property. And yet it has made room, at least for now, for a kind of fugitive curation that, albeit fragile and fugitive, raises the question of whether such curation should be “institutional” at all.

Thus, in its present state, the site is actually an ideal kind of case study or model for creating indigenous archives. Due to lack of long-term resources and possibly lack of interest in the product, it’s not fleshed out; but the skeleton might be productively be built on. It’s at least a good place to start.