Notes from the Archivist: What We Learned on Our Summer Vacation

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Researchers viewing early photography items and stereocards

Summer in academic archives is just as busy as the regular school year. Researchers visit from near and far. Campus faculty and staff retire, units move; we collect records. We prepare archival material for exhibitions and anniversary celebrations for the upcoming semester. It’s a steady stream of people, projects, and pickups all summer.

Sometimes, though, one must take a moment to reflect on the lessons we are taught from researchers about our own collections. Archivists learn each time there is a research question. Every topic, every question, adds to the research value of what we hold in our collections. It takes one’s breath away how much one learns through these questions and queries.

As example, this summer we learned that the Archives holds one of few copies of a speech addressed to Congress in the 1970s to request the US Government investigate Agent Orange and its effect on Vietnam veterans. We discovered that we hold the only known images from a 1950s gentlemen’s erotic magazine marketed to African American men, commercially available for a single year. We learned that sterling silver luggage tags were produced by an institution whose records we hold, that people collect these beautiful pieces, and wish to know more about the place and the function. We discovered that, despite the availability of online digital objects, researchers want to see and interact with the original. And we learned that the celebration of one particular 1980s television show, with records in our collection, holds universal appeal and has spawned fan clubs in several countries.

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1970 student protest posters. Photographer:  Philip Dembinski

We discovered that videos and recordings remained popular research formats: interviews, music, marches, speeches, and performances all held researchers enraptured. Dog walkers who stroll through the College outdoor sculpture garden contacted us for additional information about the statues. We also discovered that a Presidential Library was interested in a loan of a collection item for exhibit. Lastly, the great interest in conferences, protests, and movements of the 1960s, remained popular research queries.

And, those researchers who did not write us or visit us in-person also represent lessons learned. From statistics gathered about use of our publicly-accessible digital material, we found that the theses from one graduate program were downloaded more than 64,000 times. We discovered that a collection of undergraduate capstone projects was downloaded nearly 10,000 times. We are excited that researchers in 195 countries on 6 continents at more than 8,300 institutions have used our online collection material, and they continue to query and question about holdings within the College Archives & Special Collections.

The work continues...

The work continues…

Archivists collect material to be used and preserved. However, it is researchers who make material come alive. It is researchers who draw upon primary records to invent new narratives. It is researchers who imagine uses for collection material beyond traditional, evidence-based practice, who invent new projects from these delightful documents, such as a video game born from building blue prints. Frankly, it is  researchers whose questions validate the work archivists do to make collections accessible and available. To all researchers everywhere, we thank you.

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