Next month is American Archives month and the theme this year is "I found it in the archives". Since I have been an archivist for more than a few years I have been reflecting on what I have helped others find in the archives and stories from other archivists about how their patrons have used their materials to discover things about themselves and their history. It is always rewarding to learn that all the time you spent refoldering, rehousing, arranging, describing, and writing a finding aid for a collection made it possible for a patron to find that one thing they were looking for in their research.
But there are more personal stories, such as the time I was describing the contents of a labor collection to a patron over the phone. One of the items was a handbill from the 1930s to raise funds for an appeal for a union member who had been convicted of murder, possibly unjustly, who was in prison. I mentioned that the handbill had a photograph of the union member and another photograph of his wife with their four children. I then learned that the person I was speaking to was one of the children and that they had been searching for that photograph for a number of years. I had always known that the collections I worked with were not just pieces of paper and photographs, but the record of people's lives. This conversation brought that idea home to me. Another time I had given one of the many presentations the staff did to history classes that had to write an original paper doing original research with primary resources. We basically described the collections held in special collections, how to use them and what the rules are for their use. A few months later I saw one of the students and they told me that they had changed the topic of their paper after hearing my presentation. They had changed their paper to one on the controversy over changing the university mascot form Rebels to Mavericks. I thought, wow, I just briefly mentioned that collection. These are just a couple of stories that I thought I would share.
Today more archives are making their collections available digitally so patrons no longer may have to travel to use collections. It also means that by having items in a digital format patrons can use them ways that were not possible before. I recently attended a Digital Frontiers conference and one of the presentations was from a university in East Texas. Honors students had been using the oral histories and photographs in the archives. One student wondered where were the African American students in the archives. His research lead him on a personal journey of learning about Northeast Texas history and integration at Texas A&M Commerce. His research produced this video and an ongoing project. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptCdNZQoQ5I
So see what you can find in the archives.