Archives and Local History

This post is a break in the Waki Librarian’s regularly scheduled programming; we will return to a discussion of libraries, technology, and self-improvement in the next post. Today’s post turns to my other loves in the information world, history and archives, so just bear with me for a moment and I promise it will be worth it. This post is about a spotlight on local history, well local to California, and the wonders of archives. So please leave your pens and drinks outside of the archives and join me in delving into the world of archives for just a bit.

In addition to my role as online literacy librarian (and all around help support for my colleagues when they have questions about web stuff) I also oversee the University Archives. Or, to be more precise, I go down to the basement of the library each week, try to make as much sense as possible out of the collections, and just process a collection until I can’t take it any more (any archivists reading this will know exactly what I am talking about, for the librarians in the audience, go find your local archivist, buy her/him a nice cup of coffee, and s/he will be happy to explain what we do in the archives). This method seems to be working as we have an entire collection processed, described and even findable via our library’s catalog; this is a huge triumph in my opinion.

So why would anyone go into archives or, as our archives intern/volunteer would say, deal with the Sisyphean task of processing in the archives? Because it’s about bringing order into the chaos, it’s about constructing history and making visible what was previously invisible, and it’s about using all the skills, talent, and schooling to retain the records that help formulate collective memory, solidify social identity, and allow for the possibility of social justice. Now I’m not saying all the collections I process can help with all these things, but they all do help with maintaining institutional memory which is important. All too often in today’s hyperlinked, hyperkinetic world we forget about the past, forget about history, and forget about memory. Or, even worse, we relegate those concepts and research to the dusty back shelves that only “old timers” and “luddites” would want and care to go. Obviously I don’t buy that argument for a second and think archives are incredibly important (if not also time consuming and at times frustrating places to work) and I’ll give you a couple of examples of why archives are vital.

One of my colleagues, Joe, is currently taking a history class which requires him to create a blog as part of his class project. He also happens to be one of the few people at my library I can talk with about history without having his eyes glaze over in the first 30 seconds. Joe gave me permission to share his blog Italian Farmers of Alameda. I highly suggest you take a look and poke around a bit; it is beautifully laid out and the photographs are fantastic. I love the way that this blog shows a combination of local history and archival research melded into a blog format. And, you completely understand and get a sense of his love of history and interest in family genealogy from this blog. See, archives and history don’t have to be dusty (in fact, if your archives are dusty, you have a problem and should check your HVAC).

Archival materials have also been used in moving ways in historical documentaries and films. Of course the first name that comes to mind is Ken Burns, who has created numerous films using archival sources as visual aids in telling his story. (Yes, I know there is great debate about Burns’ use of archival materials, but we aren’t getting into that right now). Photographs and historic documents are evocative and moving and completely lovely when used correctly in film.

Collin, the aforementioned intern/volunteer at our archives, isn’t taking a history course at the moment, but he is currently working on archives and web design courses; he created the video below for one of his classes (turn up the volume on your computer, or even better use headphones, because the audio track is very quiet).

This video shows yet another good use of archival materials in a web environment plus it would be a fabulous marketing piece for the archives. If you liked it, go leave him a nice comment on YouTube or better yet go visit his blog The Litbrarian and pester him to start posting again.

Finally, if all this talk about archives and local history has given you archives fever, and you live in the Bay Area, go check out the San Francisco History Center. The archivists are very nice and helpful, the collections are wonderful, and it is a great place to get your feet wet in archival research. But definitely bring a warm coat, the reading room is rather chilly.

That is all I’m going to say about the archives and local history right now. I hope it peaked your interest enough to go talk to your local archivist or visit a local archives. Really, archivists like to talk with people and show off their archives’ collections as much as librarians love to explain research strategies to people. And archivists don’t bite, I promise.

The Waki Librarian will be back with your regularly scheduled library and technology programming shortly. Enjoy the day, read a lot, and share the good vibes of National Library Week with the archivists, there is totally enough of it to go around.

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