"In the Archives", an Archives Month essay compilation

To celebrate Archives Month 2010, Special Collections Archivist Lindsey Loeper contacted some of her best archives supporters on campus and asked them to write short essays about how archives have influenced them, either professionally, academically, or personally. The essays were originally posted throughout the month of October on the Library blog. Essayists include:

  • David Hoffman, Office of Student Life, Stone Upon Stone
  • Michael Bowler, Library volunteer, Contented in the Archives
  • W. Edward Orser, American Studies, A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words-Or Is It?
  • Jenny O'Grady, Institutional Advancement, Overdue
  • Jody Shipka, English, On Archives and Lived Experience
  • Richard Byrne, UMBC Magazine, The Baby Resting on a Skull
  • Christopher Corbett, English, How I Got That Story

  • Stone Upon Stone

    By David Hoffman, Office of Student Life

    In my sophomore year at UCLA I saw the student government's inner sanctum for the first time: the Student Body President's private office. The walls held display cases containing photos, in chronological order, of every student to have served in the position since the campus was founded in 1919. The dates beneath the older photos were impossibly remote, and the hairstyles and poses of the students made them seem ancient, almost mythical. But the layout of the photos, in an unbroken procession through time to the present day, invited me to think about those people as real human beings in whose actual footsteps I was walking every day.

    After I was elected President at the end of my junior year, I spent much of the summer exploring the archives of the Daily Bruin, the student newspaper. In those dusty volumes the stories behind the photos on the office wall came to life. Here were recorded all the dramas, the courageous stands and petty gripes, the passion-filled debates, the triumphs and missteps that had created the culture and context for my own daily experiences in student government. Here the mysteries of my world, the underlying unities, the eternal secrets, were hinted at if not revealed. Here the story of the campus became my story, and my transitory experience as an undergraduate became a timeless affiliation.

    In the campus library I found additional portals into the vibrant world of the past that persisted all around me. Among them was a thin book of the speeches given at the dedication of the student union building in 1930, when the Governor of California had quoted the architect John Ruskin: "When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them..." I felt that those words had been written specifically for me, and they inspired me to imagine that I was not just an inheritor of stones but potentially a builder in my own right, alive in time, a maker of history.

    A few months later I helped plan and host a gathering of the living former Student Body Presidents. We used Post-It notes on the display cases containing the Presidents' portraits to track RSVPs. Blue meant the person would attend; pink, would not attend; yellow, no response at the last known address; white, deceased. A week before the reunion the cases were covered with Post-Its: blues and pinks from the 1960s through the 1980s, with a few yellows and a white or two popping up as you moved backward in time, from right to left along the wall, and then, from around 1932 back to 1919, a sea of white. That was when I learned, really and truly in my gut, that one day I would die. And that wasn't exactly cheery news, but it was liberating in same way my trips to the newspaper and library archives had been: I was living history.

    That sense of being grounded in time and in the narrative of a community is something I both feel and am working to inspire at UMBC. In browsing the fragile pages of the earliest issues of The Retriever (before it became The Retriever Weekly) and watching videotaped interviews with early UMBC alums, I've been able to trace the origins of both the Student Government Association with which I work every day and many familiar campus landmarks and traditions. I've encouraged SGA members' pilgrimages to the archives and had the pleasure of watching them discover a past they can embrace as their own. As the archives reveal, UMBC is not a collection of buildings but a confluence of stories, each finite but in their combination eternal.

    Posted in the Library blog, 2010-10-04. Copyright maintained by author.

    return to top of page

    Contented in the Archives

    By Michael Bowler

    Retired from a long career in journalism and communications, I volunteered to work in the Special Collections Department of the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery at UMBC. Curator Tom Beck promptly offered six projects and invited me to take my pick. They were all great topics, but I chose "The Union Views of H.L. Mencken." I had worked at the Sun and Evening Sun for nearly 35 years (and had been a Newspaper Guild member all that time, participating in two strikes). I'd always wanted to know more about HLM; here was the opportunity.

    The first day was memorable. I was assigned to staffer Lindsey Loeper, who gently told me that the cup of coffee in my hand would have to go. Moreover, handling some of the material I would have to wear gloves!

    I was soon immersed in boxes of original documents Lindsey had gathered from here and there, including memos from Mencken dating back to the early '30s, minutes of negotiating sessions and grievances brought by employees trying to organize the Sun. (Mencken was the chief labor negotiator for the company for several years.)

    After I went through that material, I started reading everything I could find by and about Mencken, including his diaries and the fabulous "Newspaper Days," which I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read previously. The UMBC Library has an excellent Mencken collection, some of which I could check out of the general stacks. Took me back to college days!

    There's still a long way to go, but I hope to produce a mini-exhibition for the gallery. Tom and Lindsey have been patient with me, as I've diverted from time to time to other pursuits (currently and temporarily enumerating for the U.S. Census). The entire experience for me has been exciting (especially touching and reading the original documents) and highly educational.

    Posted in the Library blog, 2010-10-07. Copyright maintained by author.

    return to top of page

    A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words-Or Is It?

    By W. Edward Orser

    In our American Studies major we want students to have opportunities to engage primary documents, and for the past several years I have required that students in my 300-level American Studies course conduct primary research which makes use of the substantial Lewis Hine Child Labor Collection in UMBC's Library Special Collections. I explain to them that many "term papers," like those they may have done in high school, rely heavily on secondary sources where the task is to learn what others ("experts") have said about the particular topic. There the goal is to use a range of secondary sources to provide a thorough and balanced paper. However, the objective I set for this assignment is for them to engage a set of primary documents directly-developing their own skills of analysis and interpretation, rather than depending upon what others have said.

    UMBC's Lewis Hine Child Labor Collection, one of three major repositories of the photos (the others being the Library of Congress and the Eastman Kodak Library in Rochester), contains several thousand images Hine took across the United States to document the conditions under which children were working and to provide evidence on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee for its goal of laws regulating the work of children and requiring public education. The images typically have Hine's captions attached, noting the time and place of the photo, but also including his observations and commentary as well.

    Each year I assign sets of 20 different photographs from the range of states and ask the students to select 10 for their close analysis and interpretation. In recent years, the collection has been digitized, which makes it wonderfully accessible as a first step in the selection process. But I insist that students visit Special Collections in person and view those they have selected directly. While digitization and internet access provide amazing opportunities for immediate access to images of all kinds, I think it is an essential research experience for students to view the original photos in their archival setting. And, though it takes a bit of coaxing for them to leave the convenience of their computers and arrange the visit in person, the students often comment that the first hand encounter with the documents has revealed insights not readily evident on-line.

    A principal rule of the written report is that it should not include the statement, "a picture is worth a thousand words"! While it is true that sheer description of some of the images might indeed require that many words, or more, the challenge is to figure out what kind of evidence about child labor the visual images convey. From what we know about the concerns of Hine and the goals of the Child Labor Committee, how might any of the visuals contribute to the case they were hoping to make? And what techniques did Hine employ to convey that evidence? For example, photos that show small children beside larger adults provide a direct comparison in size, just as they also illustrate how children were placed in settings where they must function alongside of and in roles like adults. If the picture is indeed worth a thousand or more words, what would be the message of those words?

    But the photos often are limited in how well they can convey messages, and Hine DOES use words, too, so students are encouraged to figure out the role of his words and what they indicate about things that he felt were important but beyond the direct visual evidence. Sometimes these are simple facts which he clearly has investigated, such as the actual ages of children. Or, it may be that he has learned of a circumstance which cannot be explained entirely by the photographic evidence; for instance, a photo that shows a child with a missing or injured limb, paired with one of a factory building, with the explanation by Hine that this child was injured in an accident at this place of work-a connection that only the written words could provide. And Hine's captions often go beyond simple information to register the editorial commentary that is at the heart of his mission. For example, photograph after photograph of children working in the fields of southern New Jersey harvesting a seasonal crop bear the repetitive comment that schools in the area had already begun more than a month earlier, and these children are missing out. Or, even more pointedly, Hine's commentary sometimes resorts to out-right slogans of the anti-child labor movement, conveying written messages that these are children who are forced to become adults before their time, or going so far as to state that they are being treated as "human junk"-just in case the viewer has missed the meaning of the photos. As to responsibility, while the message frequently is about employers and their policies, it sometimes is also about how families in impoverished circumstances are forced to depend upon the labor of their children, even to the point of lying about their ages. Occasionally, Hine reserves his greatest ire for parents who clearly use their children to support their own idleness or failings, as in the case of an alcoholic father. Regardless of whether the problem is the industrial system in which impoverished parents are snared, the bottom line conveyed by Hine's photographs for the committee is the necessity of state intervention to establish protection for children and afford them educational opportunity.

    So, sure, pictures are worth a lot of words. But finding the words to explain what the visual evidence means and learning what words are needed to convey information and judgments that are beyond the limits of the photographic medium-these are invaluable lessons for the student researcher. I would argue that these insights happen best when they occur in an archival setting where students have the opportunity to confront the documents in their original form. No longer are they simply repeating what others have said, nor are they simply viewing images others have preserved and scanned for them. They are engaging documentary evidence directly, and I believe this is an extremely important step in their journey toward becoming independent researchers and thinkers.

    Ed Orser
    Professor of American Studies
    University of Maryland Baltimore County
    June 14, 2010

    Posted in the Library blog, 2010-10-11. Copyright maintained by author.

    return to top of page


    By Jenny O'Grady, Institutional Advancement

    I have always thought of my library as the ultimate unfailing brain: a sort of romantic container for information old and new, able to process and react to change, seemingly unlimited in size and scope. I love the idea that an idea might appear there in many forms - as a book, a piece of film or microfiche, in an electronic journal, or even in the memory box of a donor who chose to leave his or her most precious items for cataloguing. The library welcomes these ideas, adapts to accept them in any form - and makes them available for one and all to enjoy.

    When I heard the Albin O. Kuhn Library was giving away the cards from its print catalogs - which since 1983 have been available electronically - I felt a need to have some for my own collection. I am a book binder, a lover of all things book, so the thought of stewarding some of these cards into a new life outside their original walls appealed to me - even though I didn't really know then what they'd become. As they sat in my living room, I shuffled them in my hands, read them, smelled them. After a few weeks, it finally became clear: I wanted to put some of these cards back into the library.

    I took a vacation day, and gathered my binding materials. Then, I built a tiny catalog box of binder board, tape, paper, wire and twine. I gathered eight of my favorite cards - a 1903 agriculture text by Wendell Paddock at the top of the stack - and fashioned them into an accordion that would spring merrily from their container. I stamped the "cover" and portions of the "pages" with dates reminiscent of the old due date stampers I found - and too often ignored - in books of my youth. And then, finally, I closed the drawer of my book.

    I can't tell you how book-geekishly delighted I was to hear my project, "Overdue," had been accepted into the Albin O. Kuhn Library's special collections - with its very own electronic catalogue number: N7433.4.O57 O84 2010. Not only had the library fulfilled its mission - welcoming information into its realm in any form, but I felt the cards had finally come full circle. Now, they would always have a home.

    Jenny O'Grady is director of alumni and development communications, and associate editor of UMBC Magazine. She is also an adjunct professor in the University of Baltimore's Creative Writing & Publishing Arts MFA program, where she teaches book arts and electronic publishing courses. You can see more of her book work at www.kineticprose.com.

    Posted in the Library blog, 2010-10-18. Copyright maintained by author.

    return to top of page

    On Archives and Lived Experience

    By Jody Shipka, English

    I had my first experience working with archival materials at The Newberry Library in Chicago. The year was 1997 and I was one of eight students selected to participate in the Newberry's first undergraduate research seminar. (For more on the NLUS Program, see www.newberry.org/research/underhome.html; link updated 2016-12-16.) The opportunity to conduct research at the Newberry added an extra forty-five minutes to my already considerable commute time (approximately two and a half hours each way), but the experience was well worth it. I especially enjoyed travelling to the library on Mondays and having access to its holdings on the day of the week the library is closed to the general public. Back in 1997, my research interests centered on conduct books, medical texts, cookbooks, and (thanks largely to the holdings at the Newberry) diaries composed by women involved with the Westward Expansion. In the end, I was able to combine my interest in conduct books and cookery, producing a seminar paper entitled "The Woman Who Will Read": Cookbooks, the Role of Women, and the Science of Home Economy in the Northeast."

    Flash forward half a dozen years or so. While I remain greatly interested in matters associated with conduct and behavior, patterns of consumption, as well as in first-hand accounts of movement, adaptation and growth, the focus of those interests has shifted. That is to say, instead of centering on the lives, activities and experiences of late 19th and early 20th century women, my research focuses, at least in part, on the actions, experiences and expectations of university students, particularly so, of first-year students.

    Troubled by the dearth of information on the lived experience of college students, I began in 2000 to ask the first-year students with whom I worked to complete a task entitled "A History of 'this' Space." My thought was that my students and I could begin to create an archive of sorts-one that would detail for future readers and researchers something of the lived experiences of 21st-century college students. In brief, the history task asks students to take up the role of class historian and to communicate to others something about who they were or what they did in this context. Students are encouraged to approach the task by defining the specific space or spaces their history would represent and to consider what it is about that space they would like to research and represent for others. Students must then determine the method (or methods) by which they will collect data, and to come up with the means by which and conditions under which they would represent their findings for the audience of their choosing. During semesters when funding made it possible to do so, each student's contribution would be photocopied and bound copies of the semester's history were distributed to class members.

    The University Archives in Special Collections at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has provided me with a way of updating the history task by providing students with the materials with which they can further contextualize or situate their projects in light of what they learn about UMBC's history. Additionally, providing students with the opportunity to work with a non-circulating body of materials has allowed me to share with them something of the experience I had as an undergraduate at the Newberry Library. This is not to say, of course, that every student who receives the history task will necessarily find archival work as mysterious, engrossing and as full of potential as I did-and as I still do-but my hope is that the work they do as researchers, the questions they learn to ask and the strategies they employ while exploring the archives will, in some way, positively impact their lived experience as college students.

    Posted in the Library blog, 2010-10-21. Copyright maintained by author.

    return to top of page

    The Baby Resting on a Skull

    By Richard Byrne, UMBC Magazine

    Whether it's digging into faded texts of Renaissance alchemy for a play that I'm writing, or excavating times gone by on the campus of our university for an article in UMBC Magazine, the thrill of chasing down knowledge in archives never goes away.

    Archives are a double affirmation. First, the archive affirms that there are substantive parts of our experience - our words and objects and images and artifacts - which are worth keeping, worth guarding, and worth tender and attentive care. And yet, despite that necessary emphasis on jealous care and preservation, the archives enact the delightful paradox of ensuring and promoting access - by researchers and the general public - to these materials.

    My most exciting recent encounters in archives came as I was writing my play, Burn Your Bookes, about the 16th Century alchemist Edward Kelley and his step-daughter, the Neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Jane Weston. In the archives of Harvard University's Houghton Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress, I gained access to books owned by Kelley's employer, John Dee, held Weston's books of poetry (printed in Frankfurt and Prague in the early 17th Century) in my hands, and read (with fascination and profit) an English translation of famous alchemist and physician Oswald Croll's Alchemical Basilisk - which includes recipes for aurum potabile ("drinkable gold").

    A playwright who writes about history always finds excitement in getting closer to his sources. The Folger Shakespeare Library, for instance, has a copy of a book owned by John Dee that has the Renaissance polymath's copious marginalia scribbled in an essay on demonology. Seeing the deep grooves that Dee's pen cut into the page of that book gave me a sense of the intensity of his character and his quest for occult knowledge. Comparing two different versions of Weston's first book, Poemata, allowed me to examine at firsthand a discrepancy between the two editions noted by two scholars - Donald Cheney and Brenda Hosington. Cheney and Hosington discovered that the Harvard version of the book had a line on the cover giving imperial sanction to its publication intact, but that the version in the Folger had that line cancelled out. The discrepancy - and the obvious agency behind it - provided me with a key plot point in the play.

    Indeed, the Houghton Library's copy of Weston's second book, Parthenica, also proved to be a revelation. Both of Weston's books were published by a Silesian nobleman named George Martinius Baldhofen. Poemata was a small, plain book. But the Parthenica was a much more elaborate production - stuffed not only with Weston's poems but with poems by literary luminaries and Weston's correspondence with them. Weston did not supervise the edition, so the book is truly a window on the fascinating character of Baldhofen, right down to its fanciful frontispiece, with human figures and birds woven into an intricate pattern - and an infant reclining its elbow on a human skull! The fancy and extravagance married to morbidity that was only revealed by close examination of the book gave me strong material to write Baldhofen's part in the play.

    Posted in the Library blog, 2010-10-25. Copyright maintained by author.

    return to top of page

    How I Got That Story

    By Christopher Corbett, English

    When I was still doing journalism I decided to ride a bus from Osoyoos, British Columbia to Tijuana, Mexico largely to prove that it was still possible to ride a bus from one border of these United States to the other without actually traveling on an interstate highway. The bus company was called the Boise-Winnemucca Stage Lines - it descended from an honest to God stagecoach. My plan proved more complicated than I had hoped it would. But that's another story.

    But that's how I found myself in Reno, Nevada on a savagely hot summer weekend. The bus had dumped me there.

    Americans are not meant to be on foot. I immediately rented a car. And from my base at Fitzgerald's Hotel, a venerable shrine to what would become Nevada's reason for existence - gambling - I studied a map of the Silver State.

    Virginia City, home of the fabled Comstock Lode, was only 20 miles away. Eureka! I drove down. And from here, in the old boomtown that knew Mark Twain when he was still Sam Clemens, I again studied the map - and saw that I was near Fort Churchill - site of a Pony Express station.

    In the John Wayne film that plays in my head, Fort Churchill looked exactly like a Pony Express station should. A cluster of adobe buildings on a wind-blown sward of sand in the Nevada desert with the distant snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, like a kind of Shangri-la, on the horizon.

    I knew nothing about the Pony Express - which was actually called the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company during its brief and financially disastrous life - April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861.

    Back East, I began to think about "the Pony" as old people in the West still called it. I began to read. One book led to another. I poked around. The books were wildly contradictory and many appeared to be the work of fantasists. It took no time and little scholarship to realize that the story of the Pony Express was really a story of how something got to be a story - or in its case, an American whopper. There had not been a book in half a century. Eureka! I got to work.

    My research into the story of this story would take me to the fabled Huntington Library in southern California and to the Newberry Library in Chicago and on to the Library of Congress and to the historical archives of the eight states that the Pony crossed from Missouri to Kansas, to Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. I went to the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and I went to the cellar of the library at Willliam Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri where packed away in some dusty boxes were the extensive papers of one of the few real historians to ever have a look at this tale, which one early chronicler called "a tale of truth, half-truth and no truth at all."

    I am a big fan of libraries because of this pilgrimage. It's like fishing. You don't always get a bite but you can't fish at home. You have to get out there and do some legwork as the old denizens of Grub Street called it. Shoe leather! I found things that had never appeared in print before. I tracked down stuff that went a long way toward explaining America's appetite for what Bernard DeVoto called "the borderland of fable" that place where fact and fancy collide. There's a lot of that territory across the wide Missouri.

    This year is the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express and I am often asked to speak from Phoenix, Arizona to Nebraska City, Nebraska and points in between. People ask is anything true? Have you learned anything? What can you tell us?

    I tell them that one day I drove to Topeka, Kansas - the state capital. I had been there before. I was rooting about in the vertical files and archives in the Kansas State Historical Society looking for bits of the story of the Pony Express. I had reached the point where I thought I knew a lot - or at least more than I had known. There I came across a yellowed index card in an old-fashioned card file that you see less and less nowadays. It was a citation pertaining to an interview? An old lady in Marysville, Kansas, the Marshall County seat, gave this interview in the 1930s to a local historian. On the reverse side of the index card someone had scrawled, "she saw the Pony Express."

    I asked to see the manuscript, which some poor soul had painstakingly transcribed - typed on onionskin paper. Here were the memories of an old lady who had come to Kansas when there were still wolves and Indians and immense herds of buffalo. She was a German immigrant. There were whole towns of Germans out there. Towns with names like Bremen and Hanover. She taught school for years and years. And when she was a young woman, not much older than her students, she rode her pony overland 20 miles to a schoolhouse each week to teach the farmer's children. She carried a long barrel pistol in her waistband and remembered that although she never shot an Indian she shot at a few. It was a hard world on the prairie.

    Her maiden name was Elizabeth Mohrbacher. She was living in Marysville when the British explorer Sir Richard Burton - headed to have a look at the Mormons - hit town. And she was there when they raised the flag when Kansas became a state. And there too, when Sam Clemens, a recent Confederate army deserter passed through town headed for the territory ahead. And she was there when the Pony Express arrived after a 100-mile dash from St. Joseph, Missouri. She remembered it in wonderful detail. This was no bar story. This was no dime novel. These were not the recollections of an established fraud like William Frederick Cody. Here was an old lady on the Kansas plains who had seen America and lived a life out of a Willa Cather novel. Here was perhaps the last living American to have actually seen "the swift phantom of the desert," as Twain called the Pony Express rider.

    On mornings like that - even in Topeka, Kansas - every bit of research is worth it and all the disappointments and the trips that seemed pointless and the leads that did not pan out don't matter much anymore. I could not believe that I had found her. She had been waiting for me for a long, long time.

    Posted in the Library blog, 2010-10-28. Copyright maintained by author.

    return to top of page

    Special Collections Services


    Reading Room open by appointment

    Now Available

    photo of Robert W. Fichter's art
    Shae McCoy: West Baltimore Ruins