What resonates with readers about the work that archivists do? Does the same information found in archival records, or descriptions of archives, cause comfort to one person and discomfort to another? What do we see on both sides of the physical and virtual reference desk: individual agency, gatekeeping or something in between?
During Archives Month (October), we have opportunities to highlight community archives initiatives, academic library special collections, corporate archives, and government archives, among others. I’ve done some of that throughout the year, including before and after the Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference. You see commonalities and differences. Reactions in reading about archival work, including by anyone stopping by here (thanks for doing so!) are highly individual, too.
This past summer, Variety shared the announcement of production of a new Netflix series about Madam C. J. Walker. The Hollywood trade journal called it an “untold story” of the entrepreneur. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to formerly enslaved parents, she became a millionaire hair care products businesswoman, philanthropist, and social activist. Octavia Spencer will play Madam C. J. Walker. She also will act as an executive producer along with LeBron James.
In reporting the news of the production, The New York Times reached back into its news archives, quoting Sarah Walker, who preferred to be known by her late husband’s name as Madam C. J. Walker, in an article published in 1917:
She washed clothes for $1.50 a day, until the birth of a daughter motivated her to seek a better life.
“As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?'”
In the Variety article, Walker’s story is “untold” because it has not previously been filmed. However, as did The New York Times, Variety reported that the inspiration for the series is On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a book A’Lelia Bundles wrote about her great-great-grandmother.
A’Lelia Bundles, a former television journalist and producer, recently observed in a public post that,
I’m a big advocate for learning and telling family history. It breaks my heart when someone tells me they threw out all the family photographs or discarded a grandmother’s letters because they didn’t think those things would matter. . . .
I write books not just to tell the stories of my family members, but to tell the stories of those with whom they interacted. Many are people who made important contributions in politics, business and the arts. But their names are no longer known. I am committed to telling their stories, too.
When I wrote “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker,” I was very conscious of the fact that these stories, these people and these important historical moments had been intentionally omitted from my history books. I committed myself to telling a fuller, more accurate and more multi-dimensional version of the American story.
She linked to a May 1, 2018 Harvard overview of a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study conference, “Activism in the Archives.” At the conference, she recounted how receiving boxes that included a book inscribed by Langston Hughes to her great-grandmother, A’Lelia Walker, led to her research on the Harlem Renaissance.
The Radcliffe conference featured the work of Dr. Kenvi Phillips, Schlesinger Library Curator for Race and Ethnicity and highlighted the contributions of Krystal Appiah, Holly Smith, Khalil Muhammad, and Amanda Strauss, among others. As with many conferences I couldn’t attend in person, I followed it on Twitter. Panel photo courtesy @andreaarchivist, who tweeted, “Best presenter pictures in a presentation award goes to @SpelmanArchives Holly Smith & @Harvard Schlesinger @amandastra!! #RadTech18 #archives.”
The article A’Lelia (pictured above earlier in Washington) shared credited Andrea Jackson, as well. The RadTech18 conference featured the work of academic, government, and community partners who are striving to fill in archival silences. The article concluded, “‘By opening our eyes to the value of finding and preserving the archives of underrepresented groups, we’re revealing a dimension that kills the myth,’ said Ms. Bundles.”
Neither the Variety article nor the report in The New York Times looked at the archival aspect of A’Lelia Bundles’s research. A story may be told in part in archival records but not be accessible to a broader audience until someone uses it, writes a book, which then becomes a movie or streamed series. Viewers of such a production become secondary beneficiaries of the work of archivists and researchers.
A’Lelia Bundles highlights archives when she discusses her research on Madam C. J. Walker. She had information on the businesswoman and philanthropist after she became famous, but wanted to learn about the early years of her life, including about the plantation where she was the first child born after emancipation. Her parents and older siblings had endured enslavement on the plantation.
I’ve heard A’Lelia Bundles talk in person about her research. She once explained why her great-great-grandmother, who worked as a washerwoman when she was young, preferred to be called Madam C. J. Walker after she became a businesswoman. A’Lelia said it was a sign of respect and an effort at self-protection.
By using Madam and her husband’s initials she sought to avoid being called names that put her down, such as “auntie” or “Sally.” Sally (a nickname for Sarah) was a generic name (a dehumanizing act) sometimes used by white people in the 19th century to refer to African-American women.
On Her Own Ground provides context for the story of the businesswoman. Bundles describes some of the social, racial, economic, cultural, and geographic elements of the world in which she made her way from washerwoman to millionaire social justice activist. This gives the reader reliable information which helps historically contextualize and humanize her great-great-grandmother’s story.
Archives Month is a reminder of who has agency in telling a story. And what their reach is. And how they use it. The Radcliffe conference examined marginalized voices in the context of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Primarily White Universities, historical societies, government agencies such as the National Park Service. Dr. Phillips noted, “My role is to help raise the voices and highlight the accomplishments of women who are underrepresented at Schlesinger and often undervalued in American society.”
A’Lelia Bundles said that families have agency in deciding what to do with the papers, photographs, and artifacts some members of past generations preserved. But they don’t always think in those terms so we have opportunities to explain their value.
Some research material is preserved and made accessible through the work of information professionals at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and state archives. Not only should records managers, archivists, and librarians be aware of and strive to apply professional standards on the job, employment in public trust positions may require de-centering. You’re serving all members of the public who turn to you as a local, state, or Federal official. To the extent possible, integrity based work throughout the records life cycle is part of your stewardship responsibility.
NaVosha Copeland noted in 2017 that processing archival collections reminds her how multi-dimensional the subjects are. So, too, those who work on both sides of the reference desk. No two people who use the records archivists preserve are exactly the same. In their books, articles, blog posts, advocacy op eds, each writer chooses whose preserved words to quote or highlight–or not. Largely letting subjects speak for themselves for readers to assess or instead using a strong interpretative filter also can be highly individual.
A’Lelia Bundles is a member of the Board of the National Archives Foundation, for which she served as Chair from 2011 to 2017. The photo I took shows her with AOTUS David S. Ferriero after he thanked her for her outstanding work as chair. (Knowing David and A’Lelia in person, I appreciate both of their professional contributions in an authentic, effective archives partnership).
The second photo shows A’Lelia with me and the late Earl “Mac” McDonald, NARA photographer. Yes, I’m doing a Vulcan salute. The canonical Star Trek motto, “Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations” helps me understand those who create, preserve, and use records.
Among the users of archives are historians. In describing the value of history and critical thinking skills, James Grossman and Anthony Grafton explained,
A good humanities education combines training in complex analysis with clear communication skills. Someone who becomes a historian becomes a scholar—not in the sense of choosing a profession, but in the broader meaning of developing the scholarly habits of mind that value evidence, logic, and reflection over ideology, emotion, and reflex. A student of history learns that empathy, rather than sympathy, stands at the heart of understanding not only the past but also the complex present.
That is because in the archive the historian has the opportunity and the obligation to listen. A good historian enters the archive not to prove a hypothesis, not to gather evidence to support a position that assumptions and theories have already formed. But to answer a question. It’s an amazing experience to see and talk with and learn from the dead. . . you ask them questions about what they did and why, and in their humanity, they answer you, and you learn what you can’t learn any other way.
Who owns that history? Everyone and no one. The best historians respect the agency of those who once wrote their own words somewhere (if able–not everyone is or was so privileged). In a letter, a memorandum, a marginal note on something they read, and now, in the Social Media age, shared online and preserved through Documenting the Now. We archivists entrust their words to present and future users of community archives, historical society collections, academic libraries, corporate archives, government archives, including presidential libraries.
Words saved by people who empower themselves to keep and send to A’Lelia Bundles materials such as those about A’Lelia Walker.
By archivists such as Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, whose work on Documenting the Now I described as reflecting courage and self-empowerment on an archives Listserv where some subscribers seemed to think in terms of majority perspectives, instead.
By the designated representatives described in the original Archivist’s Code.
The archivist has a moral obligation to society to preserve evidence on how things actually happened and to take every measure for the preservation of physical records. . . . . .The archivist must realize in selecting records for retention or disposal he acts as the agent of the future in determining its heritage from the past.
We now have better opportunities to share records that our predecessors once preserved. And to expand the scope of voices in archives. To share some of those voices online, not just for elite, privileged scholars, a stereotype that still lingers in some places online. But with anyone who wants to join in.
Our actions and those of our predecessors affect what members of the public see when using an online catalog. Or when those who love history but haven’t had the opportunities we have to work in archives see images during a Twitter hashtag party. Or share Social Media posts. Or read preserved online reactions, from anyone who shares this planet with us, as they react to joyous, inspiring, sobering, or horrific events.
In the 1980s, Acting Archivist Frank Burke described the mission of the National Archives as striving “to protect the records, good and bad” of the United States government. Human struggles for rights denied and for justice are a part of those records, as shown in a permanent exhibit at NARA,”Records of Rights.” So, too, the diverse voices of those affected by the Vietnam War, in an exhibit we opened last November, open through January 6, 2019.
David Ferriero observed of the “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit that we de-center when we acknowledge our own experiences but recognize the often contested nature of history:
Eric Foner, in his book “Who Owns History,” writes, “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives.” Our job at the National Archives is to ensure that the public has access to the information they need to do that job of rewriting history. As classified information is declassified, as presidential papers are reviewed and released, as records that have never been researched before are used, that story will continue to be rewritten.
Foner does answer the question: “Who owns history? Everyone and no one – which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving never-ending journey of discovery.” As a librarian and as the archivist of the United States, my job has always been to support that journey. As a veteran, this journey is personal.
Archives Month lets us highlight those whose labor makes this possible, in our offices and among our workplace colleagues up and down the ranks. As Ferriero said in a blog post this month,
See our Twitter #AskAnArchivist chats, read our blog posts, and celebrate our agency’s invaluable holdings and the innumerable ways we connect the American public with their stories.
I am very proud of the work of our staff at the National Archives every day. I will continue to defend the principle of nonpartisan government archives, independent and therefore trusted, so that archives can continue to be the trusted brokers of history as they are today.
I am glad we also have an opportunity to acknowledge those who choose to work in archives different from the ones where we do. To appreciate ability to decide where we apply for jobs, and not endure circumstances where, in truly oppressive settings, there is no free will or ability to choose a job and workplace.
To acknowledge all who strive to act as agents of the future, whether their diverse perspectives about our profession produce comfort or discomfort. To thank those who choose to join in doing this work. Especially those who step out of the way with grace, respecting the agency of the voices preserved, without demanding that their own interpretation prevail.