I am not an archivist. Old and fragile documents have scared me for as long as I can remember. Not in a masked murderer kind of way, of course, but in the sense that at any moment while handling archival material, one can accidentally drop a priceless artifact or tear a centuries-old newspaper. That’s pressure I’d normally like to avoid when possible. On top of that unnerving, but not necessarily crippling fear, there are the allergies. Archivists do what they can to minimize dust and the like, but it’s pretty inescapable considering the amount of old stuff they’ve got to house in a relatively small area. I have to pop a couple antihistamines just to walk through the door most of the time.
So why on earth did I choose the Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library as my graduate school apprenticeship? Well, as a historian, I expect I’ll be visiting a fair number of archives in my career and I’ll need to get comfortable working with archival materials at some point, right? I’d like to think I’ve come a long way toward that goal after putting in a semester or so of work here at Swem.
My big project last semester was to catalog the papers of William Wilson Galt and his family. This entailed reading and taking notes on a few thousand letters between Galt, a US Navy Paymaster whose career at sea necessitated a great deal of postal correspondence, and his wife Mary Blair Grigsby Galt (daughter of William & Mary Chancellor Hugh Blair Grigsby), his children, siblings, parents, friends, and colleagues. Housed in nine boxes and countless folders, the correspondence spanned decades.
With so much material to read through, there were definitely times when I thought I might know more about the Galt family than my own. As I read their letters, I could see William and Mary grow up, go through courtship, marriage, the births of their children, and retirement. I saw their children grow up through their letters, which had progressively fewer spelling errors as the years passed, and saw them make the same missteps of childhood and adolescence that we all endure.
Thus far my apprenticeship at the Special Collections Research Center has been quite fruitful. Aside from learning to handle 100+ year old materials with much greater confidence, I have also come to see archives in a different light. As a researcher, I have often thought of archives as places to find the answers to particular research issues. Having worked in some small way as an archivist, and having processed a full collection, I now recognize more fully that an archive houses not only the answers to my specific questions, but on a greater scale, they hold the life stories of individuals whose lives may not have been terribly important or impressive, but were certainly interesting.
Jeffrey Flanagan is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2009-2010 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.
This blog post was originally posted on February 17, 2010, and is reposted here because of your editor’s mistake. Apologies to Jeff and any errors are mine.