Friday, 27 January 2012

Archives are not for the fainthearted

My second semester is under way and I would like to spend a wee bit of time defending the archives.  I am well aware of the stereotype of archives as being dusty, usually underground, dimly lit corridors of boxes with seldom seen tweed-clad bespectacled archivists scurrying about avoiding the daylight and I would just like to say that that is pish-tosh.

I work in Syracuse University's Archives (on the top floor of Bird with some beautiful light fittings) and there is never a dull moment.  Yesterday we took delivery of the three recently decommissioned Otto the Orange costumes:

Voted top for March Madness Mascots
(for those of you who are not familiar with the importance of College mascots, I can tell you that they are apparently very important and there are even auditions to be Otto).

Another few examples:
  • Last week I was helping to deal with a new accession to the Pan Am Flight 103 collection from the father of one of the Syracuse University victims.  Included in this collection were bits of the plane, soil from the crash site and items of the victim's luggage that had survived relatively intact.   This was a very sobering experience and emphasised the important role that archives plays in preserving the history of events.
  • The SU archives are currently dealing with attorneys concerning the Bernie Fine child sexual abuse allegations and assisting them in their research into the Basketball team's history.  You cannot underestimate the pivotal role that archives play in an institution such as a university.
  • The mascot of the University used to be the Saltine Warrior but this was sidelined and a new mascot searched for to remove any racial links.  The archives has a very interesting article about the various college mascots and the eventual decision to go with Otto the Orange (originals called Clyde or Woody).  The archives holds memorabilia featuring the Saltine Warrior but does not use it for display or exhibition purposes in case it causes offence.
  • Staff from what I would call the Development Office of Syracuse were in the archives wanting images and information concerning university traditions that they could use as a means of engaging students and alumni with the present activities of the university.
1912 Kissing bench on the quad - the story has changed over time but, currently,
any couple who kiss on it will get married (previously, a co-ed had to kiss on
 it in order to graduate and marry or a co-ed had to be kissed on the bench
so that she did not become a spinster

A couple of articles have recently brought my attention to the delicacy of some of the materials within archives and the effect that they may have on those working there.  There are two men who claim that their work at the Boston College's Centre for Irish Study has endangered their lives (articles here and here) due to the IRA.  Also, in the podcast I was listening to last night about Lenin, my ears perked up at the mention of the archivists in charge of the Lenin archives in Russia.  Robert Service used newly released archives in the 1990s to write a more personal biography of the communist politician and, in this interview, gave some insight into the treatment of archives in Russia.  Before 1991, if you were an archivist in the Soviet Union, you had to swear an oath not to reveal anything in print or orally as to what you knew from those archives so there were always grounds for suspicion as to what they held.  The few archivists working with this collection were the only ones to know what it contained and held the key to the secrets of Lenin's past - who can say that that's a boring job?

Another exciting collection is the Andy Warhol Archive in Pittsburg, which we looked at in our cataloguing class.  The most intriguing part of this collection has to be the set of 612 containers, which Warhol filled and sealed over a 30 year time period in an attempt to control the masses of material that he dealt with on a day to day basis.  The website is a fantastic feat of classification and you can spend ages playing around with the time capsules and seeing how they relate to one another.  The archivists are still in the process of opening the time capsules and they hold a big party when they do and open it in front of the guests - no-one knows what could be inside: letters, photos, artwork, books, financial works etc. and the archivists are in a unique position to appreciate and experience Warhol's work at first-hand.

I hope that the above has dispelled some myths concerning archives.  I love working in them and that's not just because I am a bit odd.  They are not only a fascinating opportunity to glimpse our past and provide priceless links to those that have gone before but also often have a direct effect on where institutions are going, how they are funded and how people receive them.

For those of you in 614 looking for some satirical relief concerning library management look no further than here, a post by an academic librarian in Cambridge.

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