“Archival Odyssey: Taking Students to the Sources”

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I decided to take Darin Waters‘ advice and read John Hope Franklin’s 1969 article published in the American Archivist entitled “Archival Odyssey: Taking Students to the Sources.”  Franklin read this paper at a joint luncheon of the American Historical Association and the Society of American Archivists that took place in New York in December 1968.

At the time, Franklin was chair of the history department at the University of Chicago.  A few years earlier, he’d met with the director of the South Carolina Archives, Charles Lee, who posed a simple question (376):

“Why have your students engage in a tug of war over two or three pages of manuscripts, perhaps one newspaper, and Appleton’s Annual Cyclopadia as they attempt to write seminar papers up there in Chicago, when each of them could have his own wall of manuscripts down here.”

Franklin convinced his university to help defray the costs for his graduate students, and they spent 2 weeks in early 1967 researching Reconstruction at the State Archives of North Carolina along with the nearby manuscript repositories at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The graduate students read all the relevant secondary sources and defined their research topics before they arrived in Raleigh, and the staff of the State Archives researched the relevant materials in their collection.  The staff and students met frequently while they were in Raleigh to share insights on materials, problems, sources, and approaches.  In addition to the knowledge and materials the students gained, Franklin explained that the greatest benefit of this experience was in the confidence they developed.  Franklin concluded (380):

“the opportunity afforded the students of going ‘beyond the water’s edge’ to confront significant materials that formed the bases for meaningful and even important papers was worth every effort that was put into the undertaking.”

I hope archival repositories never lose sight of the need to cultivate such relationships so we can continue leading students “beyond the water’s edge.”


2017 SNCA Conference

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The annual conference for the Society of North Carolina Archivists (SNCA) took place in Asheville on Thursday and Friday.  This year’s theme was “Working together: documenting diverse dialogues and communities.”

The plenary session featured Dr. Darin Waters, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.  His talk was entitled “Assisting the Discovery of Ourselves.”  He recounted some of his experiences with noted historian John Hope Franklin and pointed us to Franklin’s 1969 article published in the American Archivist entitled “Archival Odyssey: Taking Students to the Sources.”

Waters also spoke of his support for the project at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds office, which led an effort to identify and digitize slave deeds found in their records.

Waters asserted that history is about identity and explained that archives allow us to evaluate people’s efforts at self-determination.  He provided the example of an 1865 letter that a former slave, Jourdon Anderson, wrote to his master.  He also contended that archives are necessary to dispel false narratives and correct collective memory.

Waters is taking his viewpoints beyond the campus with a radio show with fellow professor Marcus Harvey.  Frank Stasio of WUNC’s The State of Things interviewed them earlier this week about their broadcasts.  SNCA member Gene Hyde, head of Special Collections at UNC Asheville, was a recent guest on their show.


Meredith Evans, the director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, delivered the keynote address.  She suggested four keys to archival work:

  • collecting – It’s no longer feasible to collect upon the death of the donor because electronic materials need to be collected in real time.
  • connecting – Archivists need to connect not just with donors of materials but also for purposes of funding and with users.
  • collaborating – Evans defined this as doing work with people who work somewhere else (and emphasized that all must pull their weight!).
  • community – She contended it’s our social responsibility to spend time with people in our community.

Of immigration and archives

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I sing in the Chapel Choir with Gunther Peck, an associate professor of history at Duke.  He recently wrote an op-ed about Trump’s immigration policies.  I think he raises an interesting point about the importance of stories to address assumptions and prejudices — and especially to counteract falsehoods.  Perhaps this is a role that archives can help fill.

The government provides a number of resources for researching immigrants:

Additional archival collections related to the immigrant experience include:

For more insight about the creation of ethnic and immigrant archives, see this 2010 article in the American Archivist.

Maya Angelou

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“You may not control all the events that happen to you but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Maya Angelou wrote this statement in her 2008 book, Letter To My Daughter.  Her own life was certainly filled with challenges, including being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend when she was 7 years old and becoming a mother at age 16.  But she went on to great acclaim as an author and performer.  Her papers are available at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.