Many Hats in the Archives: An Archives Reading List

NARA Document Trick
“Historical documents guarded with great care by National Archives,” 1939. Library of Congress.

From 8am to 4:30 in the afternoon every day I am an archivist. It’s been my job for five years now, and I hope it will the rest of my career.

So what do I actually do all day? Well, that’s hard to answer because every day is different. Officially my job description involves accessioning archival records and providing records management services to government agencies. But I do a lot more than just that! I have a lot of hats, each one closely related as I try to fulfill our archives mission: to acquire, preserve, and make available the documentary record.

Sometimes I am a government records bureaucrat, a clerk who maintains records retention schedules and writes records management policy. Other days I am crawling around dark basements searching for historical records that have been forgotten or neglected. These materials need to come back to the archives to get cleaned up and ready for research.

At times I’m face to face with researchers, answering reference questions by phone or in our reference room. Occasionally I get to write articles or give presentations to colleagues, researchers, and the general public. There are also days when I don’t see or speak to another person all day- processing new collections in a back room and making them available for research.

Spacious Filing Spaces
“National Archives, Washington, D.C.” 1939. Library of Congress.

Ok, lots of hats. That’s cool. But what’s the point of all this, you may ask? I’ve put together a list of readings that have helped me be a better archivist. Each one talks about better ways to wear each hat in the archives. Some of these are articles are written by professional archivists. Others are philosophical writings, histories, stories, interviews, and speeches. Every one stands out to me because they’re more about larger attitudes towards archives, their mission, and how we can all do a better job serving others whether we’re archivists, historians, genealogists, librarians, public history folks, or any kind of researcher.

Check out this reading list and I hope it’ll inspire you to be more thoughtful and engaged with history, no matter what hat you’re wearing!


Ballot or the Bullet (Malcolm X, 1964)

A powerful call to action from Malcolm X for racial, economic, and social justice. Archives should be a tool that people can use to pursue justice, and this speech lays down just how hard we should work to make this happen.

“Once you change your philosophy, you change your thought pattern. Once you change your thought pattern, you change your — your attitude. Once you change your attitude, it changes your behavior pattern and then you go on into some action. As long as you gotta sit-down philosophy, you’ll have a sit-down thought pattern, and as long as you think that old sit-down thought you’ll be in some kind of sit-down action. They’ll have you sitting in everywhere. It’s not so good to refer to what you’re going to do as a “sit-in.” That right there castrates you. Right there it brings you down. What — What goes with it? What — Think of the image of a someone sitting. An old woman can sit. An old man can sit. A chump can sit. A coward can sit. Anything can sit. Well you and I been sitting long enough, and it’s time today for us to start doing some standing, and some fighting to back that up.”

Malcolm X also reminds us that oppression exists in our society. Archives need to document this oppression, especially those of us who work in government archives since we’re part of the system that had created so many inequalities and hardships.

Unpacking my Library (Walter Benjamin, 1931)

Walter Benjamin was a German intellectual and part of the Frankfurt School. I like this essay he wrote about his personal library. Just like in his library, the materials we collect in our archives and the ways we arrange them say something about our values as institutions. Appraisal is important. We need to make sure our collections are consistent with our mission!

“Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and the like: all these details must tell him [the collector] something- not as dry isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole; from the quality and intensity of this harmony he must be able to recognize whether a book is for him or not.”

The Archival Edge (F. Gerald Ham, 1975)

Ham was a really influential force in the professional archives world and inspired a lot of great archivists and me. I like this article because of how he advocates for archives to think carefully about what they collect, making sure that records are actually useful to users. Archivists need to think about more than what is popular today, we need to consider what will be important to researchers in the future too.

“The archivist must realize that he can no longer abdicate his role in this demanding intellectual process of documenting culture. By his training and by his continuing intellectual growth, he must become the research community’s Renaissance man. He must know that the scope, quality, and direction of research in an open-ended future depends upon the soundness of his judgment and the keenness of his perceptions about scholarly inquiry. But if he is passive, uninformed, with a limited view of what constitutes the archival record, the collections that he acquires will never hold up a mirror for mankind. And if we are not holding up that mirror, if we are not helping people understand the world they live in, and if this is not what archives is all about, then I do not know what it is we are doing that is all that important.”

Dear Mary Jane (John Fleckner, 1991)

I was lucky enough to meet John at the Smithsonian Archives Center several times. This is a great piece for anyone new to the archives profession. It really gets me excited about being an archivist and reminds me why this work is important!

“The absence of outright scandal and of irreversible injustice is no guarantee of an enlightened and democratic society. The archival record assures our rights—as individuals and collectively—to our ownership of our history. As archivists who maintain the integrity of the historical record, we guard our collective past from becoming the mere creation of “official” history. Fortunately, today there is little threat to us from a centralized Orwellian tyranny. Yet the continuing struggles of individuals and groups neglected or maligned by the dominant culture remind us that central governments are not the only oppressors. African-Americans, Native Americans, and others are now recreating from the surviving historical record a sense of their historical peoplehood too frequently denied to them in the past. And they are struggling also to assure that the historical record in the future does greater justice to the richness and truths of their pasts.”

“If we are successful as archivists, the historical record will speak for this past in a full and truthful voice. And, as a society, we will be wiser for understanding who and where we have been.”

Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest (Howard Zinn, 1977)

“The archivist, even more than the historian and the political scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of the society. But I will stick by what I have said about other scholars, and argue that the archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business. His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake. If so, the rebellion of the archivist against his normal role is not, as so many scholars fear, the politicizing of a neutral craft, but the humanizing of an inevitably political craft. Scholarship in society is inescapably political. Our choice is not between being political or not. Our choice is to follow the politics of the going order, that is, to do job within the priorities and directions set by the dominant forces of society, or else to promote those human values of peace, equality, and justice, which our present society denies.”

“For important contemporary interviews, one might do better to consult Playboy Magazine than the Columbia Oral History Project.”

I like Zinn’s historical writings, and appreciate that he took the time to address archivists directly with this article too. Preserving the documentary record of marginalized and ephemeral communities is so important that is bears repeating several times (you’ll notice that throughout this reading list too). Being an archivist means you’ll have to make political choices and that’s ok. We’re responsible for preserving stories that are too important to leave behind.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Henry David Thoreau, 1849)

Thoreau’s attention to detail and passion in describing the world inspires me to do a better job looking at the fine details in records and describing them faithfully. I also like how he understands that not all facts and perspectives are documented in traditional records. As archivists we should think about how to preserve stories that are recorded in nontraditional ways.

“You shall see rude and sturdy, experienced and wise men, keeping their castles, or teaming up their summer’s wood, or chopping alone in the woods, men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat; who were out not only in 1775 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and plowing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.”

Working (Studs Terkel, 1981)

I can’t say enough good things about Studs Terkel. He’s my favorite historian, period.

“It is about a search, too, for daily meanings as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of drying. Perhaps immortality, too, is a part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.”

“As with my two previous books, I was aware of paradox in the making of this one. The privacy of strangers is indeed trespassed upon. Yet my experiences tell me that people with buried grievances and dreams unexpressed do want to let go. Let things out. Lance the boil, they say; there is too much pus. The hurts, though private, are, I trust, felt by others too.”

Respect for ordinary people and their place in history, finding ways to let people share their experiences in their own way and not mediated through other records, and the importance of getting to know record creators on a personal level. These are just a few things that I’ve learned from Terkel. If you like “Working,” check out “Hard Times,” “The ‘Good’ War,” or any of his radio interviews.

“I was no more than a wayfaring stranger, taking much and giving little. True, there were dinners, lunches, drinks, some breakfasts, in posh as well as short order places. There were earnest considerations, varying with what I felt was my companion’s economic condition. But they were at best token payments. I was the beneficiary of others’ generosity. My tape recorder, as ubiquitous as the carpenter’s tool chest or the doctor’s black satchel, carried away valuables beyond price.”

Slave Songs and Slave Consciousness: Explorations in Neglected Sources (Lawrence Levine, 1997)

Dr. Levine, a noted historian and frequent visitor to the archives, reminds us that there are challenges in our records. We need to remember that the sources we collect are flaws and that we need to think creatively to reduce gaps in the communities our archives represent.

“Having worked my way carefully through thousands of Negro songs, folk-tales, jokes, and games, I am painfully aware of the problems inherent in the use of such materials. They are difficult, often impossible, to date with any precision. Their geographical distribution is usually unclear. They were collected elatedly, most frequently by men and women who had little understanding of the culture from which they sprang, and little scruple about altering or suppressing them…But historians have overcome such imperfect records before. They have learned how to deal with altered documents, with consciously or unconsciously biased first hand accounts, with manuscript collections that were deposited in archives only after being filtered through the overprotective hands of fearful relatives, and with the comparative lack of contemporary sources and the need to use their materials retrospectively. The challenge presented by the materials of folk and popular culture is neither totally unique nor insurmountable.”

The German Ideology: “The Illusion of the Epoch” (Karl Marx, 1845)

“Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true…This historical method which reigned in Germany, and especially the reason why, must be understood from its connection with the illusion of ideologists in general, e.g. the illusions of the jurist, politicians (of the practical statesmen among them, too), from the dogmatic dreamings and distortions of these fellows; this is explained perfectly easily from their practical position in life, their job, and the division of labour.”

Marx has had such a big impact on the fields of history, economics, and politics. Why not archives too? Be careful when you’re appraising and investigating records. A critical eye and mind during appraisal and description, as well as any time you’re doing research, is a must.

Roots (Alex Haley, 1976)

When “Roots” as published and later made into a TV miniseries, genealogy got super popular in the United States. I think reading Haley’s journey to discover his family history helps us get a better perspective on the researchers who visit archives and what finding the right records can mean to them. These aren’t just old pieces of paper, they’re personal.

“Rolls of microfilm were delivered. I began turning film through the machine, feeling a mounting sense of intrigue while viewing an endless parade of names recorded ‘in that old-fashioned penmanship of different 1800s census takers. After several of the long microfilm rolls, tiring, suddenly in utter astonishment I found myself looking down there on: “Torn Murray, black, blacksmith–,” “Irene- Murray, black, housewife”–. followed by the names of Grandma’s older sisters–most of whom I’d listened to countless times on Grandma’s front porch. “Elizabeth, age 6″- -nobody in the world but my Great Aunt Liz! At the time of that census, Grandma wasn’t even born yet! It wasn’t that I hadn’t believed the stories of Grandma and the rest of them. You just didn’t not believe my grandma. It was simply so uncanny sitting staring at those names actually right there in official U. S. Government records. Then living in New York, I returned to Washington as often as I could manage it–searching in the National Archives, in the Library of Congress, in the Daughters of the American Revolution Library. Wherever I was, whenever black library attendants perceived the nature of my search, documents I’d requested would reach me with a miraculous speed.”

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1936)

“I would express the whole industry in yet another allegory. A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: “This tower is most interesting.” But they also said (after pushing it over): “What a muddle it is in!” And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: “He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.” But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”

Tolkien is usually remembered for his fiction, but he was a thoughtful literary critic as well. In this important essay on understanding the Beowulf poem as its creators intended, I’m reminded that archives need to collect records that show the entire picture. We can’t just cherry-pick the good stuff. Context for our researchers is vital!

Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (Michael Baxandall, 1972)

Putting yourself in the mindset of a records creator is important for anyone involved in history. It’s helpful when we appraise, process, and provide reference services. It’s necessary when we research and analyze sources. Another reminder that context is important, Baxandall says that we need to have a “period eye” to understand the world views and assumptions that people in the past held.

“One brings to the picture a mass of information and assumptions drawn from general experience. Out own culture is close enough to the Quattrocento for us to take a lot of the same things for granted and not to have a strong sense of misunderstanding the pictures, we are closer to the Quattrocento mind than to the Byzantine, for instance. This can make it difficult to realize how much of our comprehension depends on what we bring to the picture.

“Some of the mental equipment a man orders his visual experience with is variable, and much of this variable equipment is culturally relative, in the sense of being determined by the society which has influenced his experience. Among these variables are categories with which he classifies his visual stimuli, the knowledge he will use to supplement what his immediate vision gives him, and the attitude he will adopt to the kind of artificial object seen. The beholder must use on the painting such visual skills as he has, very few of which are normally special to painting, and he is likely to use those skills his society esteems highly. The painter responds to this; his public’s visual capacity must be his medium. Whatever his own specialized professional skills, he is himself a member of the society he works for and shares its visual experience and habit.”

What White Publishers Won’t Publish (Zora Neale Hurston, 1950)

What records are out there? What records aren’t out there? As archivists we need to make sure we’re actively looking for and collecting records that accurately reflect our society. If we can’t find those records, how else can we help to document underrepresented or marginalized perspectives? And by the way, Zora Neale Hurston is an amazing writer and scholar and everyone should read her work.

“Outside of racial attitudes, there is still another reason why this literature should exist. Literature and other arts are supposed to hold up the mirror to nature. With only the fractional “exceptional” and the “quaint” portrayed, a true picture of Negro life in America cannot be. A great principle of national art has been violated.

These are the things that publishers and producers, as the accredited representatives of the American people, have not as yet taken into consideration sufficiently. Let there be light!”

Mothering While Brown in White Spaces, Or, When I Took My Son to Octavia Butler’s Exhibit (Cecelia Caballero, 2017)

“Mothering while brown means all the times I’ve been told, not asked, to leave white spaces while with my child—university classrooms, academic conferences, exhibits, museums, cafes, restaurants. So you mother while brown anyway. You don’t have the luxury otherwise. You mother while brown in white spaces and white buildings and white walls and white statues and all you can see is the whiteness of their white teeth telling you to please kindly just shut your kid the hell up, go away, and leave it all for them again. Mothering while brown in white spaces means that my son Alonsito is a liability, a distraction, a nuisance, an irritant, an aberration of a little brown boy with brown eyes that they refuse to look into because they will only see the emptiness of their nice, polite, white policies reflected back to them, their rules and regulations printed on official white sheets of paper.”

Most of the readings on my list are fairly old, but this one is just a few months old. I think it does a better job than anything else I’ve read at talking about our patrons’ perspectives. It reminds me that archives aren’t just here to collect records, we have to make sure that our outreach and reference services is inclusive and provides meaningful access for everyone.

Muckraker or Historian? (Chapter 12 of “All in the Days Work”) (Ida Tarbell, 1939)

Ida Tarbell, though she didn’t like the term, was one of the first of the early 20th century muckraker progressives. Her research on the Standard Oil Company opened eyes to terrible business practices the company used. I like her mindset going into research and writing- don’t be afraid to do whatever it takes to get your information and tell the story accurately. Just because records can make someone look bad doesn’t mean they can be restricted and hidden away.

On an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln Tarbell debunked:

“But in spite of all the documents and evidences I collected demolishing the episode, I reaped only sour looks and dubious headshakes. I had spoiled a good story or tried to. It still remains a good story. Every now and then somebody tells it to me. A biographer who tries to break down a belittling legend meets with far less sympathy than he who strengthens or creates one.”

On interviewing a top Standard Oil Company Executive:

“Mr. McClure was sure I would not ask anything better, which was quite true. And so an interview was arranged for one day early in January of 1902 at Mr. Rogers 5 home, then at 26 East Fifty-seventh Street. I was a bit scared at the idea. I had met many kinds of people, but this was my first high-ranking captain of industry. Was I putting my head into a lion’s mouth? I did not think so. It had become more and more evident to me that any attempt to bite our heads off would be the stupidest thing the Standard Oil Company could do, its reputation being what it was. It was not that stupid, I told myself. However, it was one thing to tackle the Standard Oil Company in documents, as I had been doing, quite another thing to meet it face to face. And then would Mr. Rogers “come across”? Could I talk with him? So far my attempts to talk with members of the organization had been failures. I had been met with that formulated chatter used by those who have accepted a creed, a situation, a system, to baffle the investigator trying to find out what it all means.

My nervousness and my skepticism fell away when Mr. Rogers stepped forward in his library to greet me. He was frank and hearty. Plainly he wanted me to be at ease. In that way he knew that he could soon tell whether it was worth his while to spend further time on me or not.”

The Propaganda of History (from “Black Reconstruction in America”) (W.E.B. DuBois, 1935)

If you haven’t noticed, some of the most powerful readings in my list come from brilliant African-American writers who thought and spoke often on racial inequality. DuBois is no exception. Here he analyzes historical writings available in the 1930s and demonstrates how they leave so many important things out. If history and archives are just going to be used for “inflating our national ego” as he says, then what’s the point? We need to make sure that we collect and share records that document the full picture.

“War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimized the slavery controversy which convulsed the nation from Missouri Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by Reconstruction with a phrase of regret or disgust.

But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.

If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.”

Looking for Zora (Alice Walker, 1975)

Zora Neale Hurston, despite her brilliance, died in obscurity and poverty in the 1950s. In this reading about her grave site, Alice Walker shows us the importance of records to researchers. We need to consider that neglected sources deserve special care and attention from us, and remember that for some communities, records can be the only records of their existence and their preservation is critical.

“There are times- and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them- when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. It was impossible for me to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is. Partly this is because I have come to know Zora through her books and she was not a teary sort of person herself; but partly, too, it is because there is a point at which even grief feels absurd. And at this point, laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity.”

The Office, “Business School” S3 E17 (Brent Forrester, 2007)

“Business is always personal. It’s the most personal thing in the world.”

An episode of The Office may seem like a non-serious pick compared to others on this list, but I’m inspired by Michael Scott’s loyalty to his co-workers. I hope I can be as loyal to my co-workers, colleagues, record donors, patrons, and everyone else involved with the archives. People are what archives are all about.

“A good manager doesn’t fire people. He hires people and inspires people. People, Ryan. And people will never go out of business.”

Of the Librarian’s Profession (Archibald MacLeish, 1940)

Archivists aren’t just the stewards of records. We need to provide meaningful access, and that requires interpreting, contextualizing, and sharing them in creating ways. MacLeish was the Librarian of Congress during World War II and encouraged librarians to speak out against totalitarianism and be professional involved in the war effort. What can we do with archives to assist our society best today?

“…the profession of the of the librarian is not and cannot be the neutral, passive, negative profession of the guardian and fiduciary, but must become instead the affirmative and advocating profession of the attorney for a cause. For the intellectual book is the word. And the keepers of the word, whether they so choose or not, must be its partisans and advocates. The word was never yet protected by keeping it in storage in a warehouse: the preservation of the word is now, as it has always been, a cause- perhaps the greatest- not, I think, the least danger in this time.”

“Keepers of books, keepers of print and paper on the shelves, librarians are keepers also of the records of the human spirit- the records of men’s watch upon the world and on themselves. In such a time as ours, when wars are made against the spirit and its works, the keeping of these records is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they so wish or not, cannot be neutral.”

Everyman His Own Historian (Carl Becker, 1931)

Everyone’s stories and records are important. Not just the papers of leaders and “great men.” We need to try to collect and preserve diverse stories and perspectives. If you think I’ve repeated this a million times by now that’s because this is so important.

“Let us then admit that there are two histories: the actual series of events that once occurred; and the ideal series that we affirm and hold in memory. The first is absolute and unchanged—it was what it was whatever we do or say about it; the second is relative, always changing in response to the increase or refinement of knowledge. The two series correspond more or less, it is our aim to make the correspondence as exact as possible; but the actual series of events exists for us only in terms of the ideal series which we affirm and hold in memory. This is why I am forced to identify history with knowledge of history. For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.”

“The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman.”

What’s So Bad About Ken Burns? (Jonathan Zimmerman, 2017)

Good outreach. Meaningful access. We need to present archival materials in ways that are appealing and actually reach people, not just traditional researchers.

“It’s almost too easy to take potshots at this romantic, highly stylized version of the national past. It’s much harder to substitute a better one, especially when you have been trained to write for a tiny group of fellow experts.

‘I believe you have failed and lost touch absolutely in the communication of history to the public and that it has fallen to the amateur historians, if you will, to try to rescue that history,’ Ken Burns told the Journal of American History — the flagship publication in our field — in 1994. ‘I would hope that the academy could change course and join a swelling chorus of interest in history for everyone.’ That never happened.”

Have any of these readings impacted how you think about history? Is there anything else you’d add to this list? Add a comment and let me know!


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