Archival Principles: Context

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block CLast week, I began reflecting on some key archival principles.  Having already considered appraisal, now I turn to context.  (If you’ve visited here before, you’ll recognize that context is an important concept for me — check the category on the right for other related posts.)

The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines context in two ways:

1. The organizational, functional, and operational circumstances surrounding materials’ creation, receipt, storage, or use, and its relationship to other materials.

2. The circumstances that a user may bring to a document that influences that user’s understanding of the document.

The note accompanying these definitions explains that context, along with content and structure, is one of the fundamental aspects of a record.  My own professional context is that I’m currently working in records management, so it makes sense context is on my brain.  The first of these definitions lends itself to connecting with another archival concept, that of original order.  In the best of all possible worlds, archivists commit themselves to preserving the original order of documents, with this notion that the organization provided by the records’ creator helps to provide some relevant context for them.  Of course, occasionally, documents are transferred to a repository absent of any discernible order or disheveled from a crisis or a move, so this is not always possible.

In my opinion, the second definition is too narrow.  It reflects the postmodernist notion of reader-response theory, acknowledging that the experiences, biases, and expectations of archival users can impact how they understand a document.  But I think the very context of a document’s creation — when, by and for whom, why, where — also bears on the interpretation of that document.  For more on this, come back in a few weeks to learn about Organization.


“Mother to Son”

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I have found myself haunted by this verse:

“Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Langston Hughes published this poem in 1926 in a book entitled The Weary Blues.  In his seminal work Harlem Renaissance, historian Nathan Irvin Huggins highlighted Hughes’ conception of:

“poetry as the music of the common people’s language, captured and tied to the images of their minds.  He saw himself and his poems as the means through which ordinary Negro men and women could become poets.  And, perhaps, he could be the means for others to see their own beauty, see themselves as artists” (78).

Huggins cited a 1926 article by Hughes published in The Nation that emphasized his embrace of the common man and his rejection of what he saw as the tendency for the black elite to identify with white culture.  Rather than needing to look elsewhere for inspiration, Hughes contended, “‘we have an honest American Negro literature already with us'” (204).

In this poem, Hughes employed a testimonial structure.  In his 1974 dissertation, Philip M. Royster concluded Hughes incorporated the mother’s ascent and her advice, “grounded in the authority of her own wisdom and experiences to persuade her son” (84).

The letters, manuscripts, and photographs of Hughes are available at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Christmas carol context

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I have a Christmas album that makes reference to the 1942 Rose Bowl that was played in Durham because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than a month earlier.  (See this article by the former Duke University archivist for more information on this game.)

Together with this week’s anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, I became curious about the Christmas songs that were written during World War Two.  (You’ll forgive my misappropriation of the term carol on my title for the purpose of alliteration!)

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” was first played on the radio on Christmas Day 1941.  The following year, it was popularized in the film Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and won an Academy Award.  Berlin originally wrote this song for a Broadway musical revue about American holidays, but the show was never produced.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the U.S., and his daughter suggested her father saw Christmas as an American cultural holiday more so than a religious one.  An author of a book on Berlin related the melancholy nature of this song to the tragedy Berlin endured on Christmas Day in 1928 when his 3-week-old son died.

Unfortunately, the original recording of this song has been lost.  According to a 2015 story by KUOW,

“The radio premiere of the song on Kraft Music Hall was lost or taped over.  Crosby’s original 1942 master recording – the version heard by troops overseas – wore out from overuse.  The most familiar version is from 1947, when Crosby re-recorded the song hoping to recapture the original magic.”

In 1943, Crosby recorded “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which also became an award-winning song.  According to a Library of Congress article, this became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows in both Europe and the Pacific during World War II.  This song was written by Walter Kent (music) and James “Kim” Gannon (words).

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Teddy Roosevelt

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“As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation.  It is a base untruth to say that happy is the nation that has no history. Thrice happy is the nation that has a glorious history.  Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt delivered this speech in Chicago on April 10, 1899, entitled “The Strenuous Life.”  He made reference to the Spanish-American War of the previous year — though not about his involvement with the Rough Riders — and suggested it is the timid who avoid the strenuous life.

Roosevelt had been elected Governor of New York in 1898; in 1900, he was chosen as the vice presidential candidate by the Republican party.  After President McKinley was assassinated on September 14, 1901, TR became U.S. President.

Roosevelt concluded this 1899 speech:

“I preach to you, then, my countrymen, that our country calls not for the life of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavor.  The twentieth century looms before us big with the fate of many nations.  If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world.  Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods.  Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University is working to provide digital access to papers related to TR from the Library of Congress, Harvard College Library, six National Park Service sites, and numerous smaller collections.

Amelia Earhart

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“Courage is the price which life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things;

Knows not the livid loneliness of fear
Nor mountain heights, where bitter joy you can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate,
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare

The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice we pay
With courage to behold resistless day
And count it fair.”

Amelia Earhart wrote this poem after her engagement to Sam Chapman ended.  She had recently gained acclaim as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic when she accompanied pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis “Slim” Gordon on their 1928 transatlantic flight.  In May 1932, she flew solo across the Atlantic — the first woman and only the second person to do so.  In July 1937, while attempting to complete an around-the-world flight, Earhart lost radio contact with the U.S. Coast Guard due to radio and weather difficulties.

Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were never located, and theories about them abound.  The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a collection of materials related to the months-long search for her plane.  Earlier this year, NARA found a photograph in its collection that possibly shows Earhart and Noonan in the Marshall Islands after the disappearance of their plane.

In February 1931, Earhart married publisher George Palmer Putnam.  He donated her papers to the Archives and Special Collections Research Center at the Purdue University Libraries.

The Tempest

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We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.

These lines belong to Antonio in Act 2, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, written in the early 17th century.  Antonio tries to convince Sebastian to murder his brother and assume the throne as the King of Naples.  Antonio had previously usurped his own brother’s position as Duke of Milan — so Prospero retaliates by using his powers of sorcery to create a storm that causes Antonio and King Alonso of Naples to believe they are shipwrecked and marooned on the island.  Spoiler alert: Antonio and Sebastian don’t succeed in killing King Alonso.

Where Antonio was suggesting some sort of fated destiny, these lines have been embraced over the years by archivists who who interpret them as evidence of the value of history as a springboard for later events.  These words are inscribed on Future, Robert Aitken’s 1935 statue located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2

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I’m taking my dive into context in a slightly different direction this week.  Several times, I’ve had the pleasure of singing Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, known as the “Resurrection” symphony.  While it is primarily an orchestral work, in the final movement, the chorus along with soloists give voice to the words of resurrection.  I knew the text isn’t biblical in origin, so I set out to discover the story.

Mahler began working on parts of what would become his Second Symphony in 1887, but he struggled to conceive a work that would not be merely seem imitative of other great composers.  In 1894, Mahler heard a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock set to a chorale tune at the funeral of Hans von Bülow, a well-renowned German conductor and pianist.  He recognized this text of “Die Auferstehen” (“The Resurrection”), which had first been published in 1758 in a collection entitled Sacred Songs, as the frame that could bring form to his symphony.  Several years later, he wrote to an arts critic, Arthur Seidl:

“I had long contemplated bringing in the choir in the last movement, and only the fear that it would be taken as a formal imitation of Beethoven made me hesitate again and again.  Then Bülow died, and I went to the memorial service. — The mood in which I sat and pondered on the departed was utterly in the spirit of what I was working on at the time. — Then the choir, up in the organ-loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale. — It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for — “conceiving by the Holy Ghost”!  What I then experienced had now to be expressed in sound. And yet — if I had not already borne the work within me — how could I have had that experience?”

Mahler did not incorporate the entirety of Klopstock’s poem (only the first two stanzas), but for the sake of context, here it is (as translated from the German by William Lind in 1848):

YES! thou wilt rise, wilt rise as Jesus rose, / My dust, from brief repose. / Endless to live / Will He who made thee give. / Praise ye the Lord.

Again to bloom the seed the sower sows. / The Lord of harvest goes / Gathering the sheaves, / Death’s sickle reaps and heaves. / Praise ye the Lord.

Oh! day of thankfulness and joyful tears, / The day when God appears! / When ‘neath the sod / I have slept long, my God / Will wake me up.

Then shall we be like unto them that dream, / And into joy supreme / With Jesus go. / The pilgrim then shall know / Sorrow no more.

Ah! then my Saviour me shall lead in grace / To the Most Holy Place, / If Him I serve / This side the veil, nor swerve. / Praise ye the Lord.

Mahler was born Jewish, though he did not publicly practice any religion and secretly converted to Catholicism in order to become conductor of the Vienna Court Opera.  He did have a lifelong interest in spirituality and philosophy, and he penned the remaining words for this final movement:

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing is lost to you!
Yours is what you longed for!
Yours what you loved, what you fought for!
O believe: you were not born in vain!
You have not lived in vain, suffered in vain!
What has arisen must pass!
What has passed must rise!
Cease to tremble!
Prepare yourself to live!
O pain! You all-pervasive one!
From you I am wrested!
O death! You all-conquering one!
Now you are conquered!
With wings I have won for myself
In love’s ardent striving, I will soar
To the light to which no eye has penetrated!
I will die, so as to live!
Rise, yes, you will rise,
My heart, in an instant!
What you have defeated
Will carry you to God!

Around the time of the premiere performance of this symphony, he wrote to a friend,

“We shall all return, and only the certainty of this gives meaning to our life.  It is immaterial whether or not we remember our previous incarnations.  This does not depend on the individual, his memory, or his willingness, but upon the great profession toward perfection . . . .”

After being on loan at the New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library for many years, the manuscript for this symphony sold at auction in 2016 and is now held in private hands.


P.S. If today’s post doesn’t fill all of your archival reading needs, take a look at my case study that was published this week by SAA’s Government Records Section about the functional analysis initiative at the State Archives of North Carolina.


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