This wasn’t the first time I’ve visited the 42nd street NYPL nor will it be the last. Some key talking points which will frame the rest of my post: the communities we as researchers and scholars are a part of; the macro- and micro-level decision making in creating an archive, and the structures governing an archive.
Last semester, in Intro to Doctoral Studies in English, I attended an NYPL field trip. I met Mary Catherine and Tal Nadan during that trip. Following that I worked up the courage to visit the archive on my own time and peruse rare books and manuscripts. A little exercise like this broke down my apprehensions regarding the archive. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize the fact that Mary Catherine and Tal not only remembered me from back then but were just as interested in what materials I am currently researching and how my projects changed since then. Experiences like these remind me that we belong to a community of scholars and researchers. I’m very thankful to know that we have such helpful, beneficent, and supportive people to whom we can count on when we enter places like the NYPL. Due to the proximity of the GC to the NYPL (8 city blocks away), we possess the opportunity to foster such relationships with archivists and curators.
Mary Catherine’s question “If you were an archive which archive would you be?” got me thinking: what sort of archive would I be? What sort of materials would I collect and what would I not collect? Would my scope be broad or narrow? Which materials would I choose to ignore? These questions brought attention to the macro- and micro- decision making that goes into the collecting of an archive. They also shed a light onto the decision making that goes on to choosing our own research practices. Why do we gravitate towards certain objects more than others?
The flow chart outlining the structure of the archive served as a reminder that it’s also another institution. These curators and archivists have bosses. The NYPL as a public institution relies on government funding. The fact that the library closes early speaks to fluctuating funding practices over the years. But we still get access to the material and can touch material without an archivist hounding over us.
Why would you wanna be here? What do you see here? Simple but provocative questions. After the Schomburg Center visit I’ve been mulling over these questions. I took some notes during the course of the visit but those observe what was said. What struck me were some of the things the archivists said: before you visit an archive, search their online catalogs. Familiarize yourself with the collections. Think about what it is you’re looking for when you’re looking through these collections. Once you visit the archivist they’ll have a better an easier time guiding you meaningfully to collections and works that you’re searching for. Cite your sources properly.
What motivates a collection might not be so simple and clear-cut. As we’ve learned during the visit, items get divided up according to the logic of said-archive. The Schomburg has five divisions: a research and reference division, a manuscripts and rare books division, an art and artifacts division, and photographs division. According to this logic, a letter and photograph would not end up in the same division. As we’ve learned a donor’s wishes would supersede the archives organizational logic. A letter may be paired with a photograph in the instance that a donor wishes for it. Keeping these in mind, the Schomburg visit is another reminder that we as researchers working within the archives must think not only about the organizational logic of the curator and institution but the logic of the donor. These instances raise more questions: what motivates donors and archivists to organize their materials in particular ways?
Archivists wants to help. They’re clearly amazing resources. In class we’ve discussed the notion of serendipity in relation to the archives. When searching the Schomburg Center’s online catalog I had no clear-cut goal—I serendipitously wandered the collections that emerged within the homepage. I couldn’t find everything I wanted. The visit reminded me—and taught me—that the archivist is an invaluable resource. Their knowledge and experience navigating the archives can aid us in our own projects.
Reflecting on the Schomburg Center visit, I realize there’s a need to understand the history and objective of said archives. The Schomburg Center collects and preserves materials focused on African American, African diaspora, and African experiences. It goes back to my initial question on why anyone would want to explore materials housed at the Schomburg Center. Scholars and researchers interested in the African American experience and cultural history would definitely find a reason to study materials here.
I chose the Chronicling America project.
What motivated me in picking this project is banal: piracy. The subject of pirates within the 18th/19th centuries and their representation has always interested me on personal and (recently budding) scholarly levels. Having nailed the subject down, I then asked which projects may aid in discovering more news about them. Among the projects offered, I decided Chronicling America would be a great starting point—and that it was. The ‘about’ page claims they “provide access to information about historic newspapers” but that’s not all. Thousands upon thousands of newspapers have not only been digitized but went through text encoding. The fact that each participant of the National Digital Newspaper Program receives an award to digitize around 100,000 newspaper pages goes to show that there are thousands of newspapers still in microfilm, most likely sitting within an archive somewhere. Chronicling America is for any number of people: from the cultural historian who wants to trace the journalism of Melville to the public-school teacher looking for news within their local state, the sheer breadth of the project tells me it’s meant to serve any and everybody. The Website offers an interactive HTML for magnification and navigation. To undertake a similar project one would need an understanding of archival practices and methods (microfilms), HTML, Java, Meta-data practices, and the Open Archive Information System. The producers of the website are NDNP, a partnership between the NEH and Library of Congress. What worries me about such a project are which newspapers are selected to be digitized and which are not. Participants of Chronicling America are expected to digitize from microfilm holdings merely for efficiency and cost. It makes me wonder what gets elided in that preference for efficiency. Future projects could learn to implement a similar Web interface enhanced with dynamic HTML and OCR scanning—it makes interacting with the Website smooth and pleasant.