In her usual forthright, stern, and disapproving manner, Sara Kiszka reminded me last Thursday (12/17) that I was responsible for the last post of the year to The Northern Tradition. For most of Friday, I diddled around trying to conjure up an interesting and useful topic. By late afternoon, I had nothing. Each Archives staff member is responsible for at least one blog post each semester, and they generally write about one of the historical manuscript collections. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of being the “big Kahuna,” “Big Cheese,” or “Dude that Makes the Big Bucks” is that I don’t get much time, if any, to actually work on the collections (Glenda Ward might disagree). Faculty responsibilities, instructional sessions, largely useless committee meetings, and a litany of problems threatening to end all life on the planet unless I resolve them immediately, dominate most of my days (time to take a deep breath!). At the end of the week, I generally appear unkempt and slightly unstable.
I like to believe that I am a fairly decent archivist but not a very good records manager, which is why we have Sara Kiszka. Records managers are responsible for the day-to-day use of institutional records with short-term value. They rarely concern themselves with the “permanent,” archival stuff. Records managers love to work in the institution’s bureaucratic fray and lurk about like KGB agents ready to pounce on unsuspecting office workers who fail to follow the approved records disposition schedules dogma. They are possessed by a genetic code infused with a deep desire to control the Universe and everything but without the towel.
Sadly, my genetic code is a mess of mutations, and I have trouble controlling anything. Not surprisingly, in her first year, Sara had a particularly vexing time trying to fix problems and errors in my records management program (I like to think that what did not kill her made her stronger). I do, however, have a very nice towel (so there, Sara!). I am simply predisposed to working with archives and love to acquire and develop regional historical manuscript collections. Manuscript collections are the personal papers (letters, diaries, FB posts, photographs, etc.) or organizational records (correspondence, memorandum, meeting minutes, financial) created by individuals, civic groups, local government entities, and businesses. Archivists call these collections “manuscripts” because they are unpublished, unique, and what historians call primary sources. These records and papers are the traces left behind that become our collective memory. Archivists are the professionals who find and save them for posterity. It’s a heady and awesome responsibility.
Over the last year, Archives’ staff members have contributed a number of excellent posts to this blog, highlighting some of our more interesting historical manuscript collections. However, these collections just don’t miraculously appear at the Archives’ doorstep. Unlike librarians, we don’t have an acquisition budget to purchase the latest and greatest information databases (librarians don’t really collect or work with books anymore) or primary sources (even if there were such things). While they wile away the time in their comfy offices, I have to leave campus and go out among the unwashed masses, sometimes facing nameless dangers, to find manuscript collections. I often spend years negotiating with donors and confronting untold horrors in dang basements and sweltering attics (in Texas, I once was nearly bitten by a deadly water moccasin snake while retrieving a valuable manuscript collection from a farm house out building.)
Like the house cat with its latest kill (mouse, bird, lizard, whatever), I tend to drag cool historical manuscript collections into the Archives, play around with them for a few minutes, and then leave the stuff to someone else to clean-up. “Processing” a collection is what archivists do to make primary sources available and useful to historians and others. The fancy term is “arrangement and description.” Some archivists believe that the work is one of the most fascinating and satisfying aspects of archival management and is often the main reason they entered the profession. I once processed the papers of a beloved music teacher that started with a picture of her as a small child and ended with one on her death bed. In between, were all the memories of her life on this planet. It was very solemn and humbling work.
Just the other day, I realized that I haven’t processed a collection in 15 years – far too long. I’ve worked as a professional archivist for the last 25 years, 19 at NMU. In the fall of 1986 (almost 30 years ago!), I was an undergraduate history major at the University of Oregon. Like many history majors, I had no idea what I would do with my degree upon graduation. For a time, I dabbled in secondary education but that was a disastrous and dismal affair. One day, my good friend, Matt Faatz (ironically, a secondary education teacher in Salem, Oregon), and I met with the undergraduate history club’s faculty advisor, Dr. Lang (Matt enjoyed calling him “Dr. Lung,” and I can’t remember why). We were having difficulty developing an exciting list of club activities for the year. At some point, I remember, Lang suddenly recommended a visit to the University Archives. The what? I thought. Matt and I gave each other a perplexed look, since neither of us had any idea that the University had an archives and only a very vague idea of what an archives was!
A rather pathetic response for a pair of history majors, but one that was, and to some extent still is, indicative of an undergraduate education in history (not at NMU, I am very proud to state!). I subsequently called the University Archivist, Keith Richard (not the Rolling Stone dude), and he graciously gave the history club a tour of the Archives the following week. It was a wonderful and revelatory experience. Although a classically doddering old archivist by this time, Keith went through the whole process of archival management with enthusiasm and showed us some really cool old documents and photographs. Moreover, his reading room was crammed with all sorts of artifacts (somewhat unusual in archives). Since the University didn’t have a museum, Keith would gather and accept all sorts of stuff from alumni and campus offices. At times, one might even see him dumpster diving.
By the end of the tour, I was apoplectic with joy and practically jumping up and down unable to control myself! Finally, I thought, a history-type job that doesn’t involve teaching snotty nosed and drug altered adolescents (apologies, Matt)! In that instant, I was teleported back to 1983 and was once again the young soldier on leave in Paris, sitting in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles and contemplating Bismarck declaring the establishment of the Germany Empire after the Franco-Prussian War (1872) or watching the signing of the infamous Treaty of Versailles (1919). History was suddenly very real again. “Are there jobs in this field,” I loudly blurted out before anyone else had a chance to ask a question. And that’s how I became an archivist – not a premeditated or very well-thought out choice, just a gut reaction to a moment of joy that I don’t regret.
I went on to graduate school, completing my MA in history with a concentration in archival management (1990). I told friends that I would go anywhere for my first archival job except the South. The Universe dislikes a tempter of fate, so I soon found myself as the first professional archivist for the Tyrrell Historical Library in Beaumont, Texas, just about as south as one can get. It was a great first archival job despite the snakes, fleas, and cockroaches. The rest, as we say, is history. Now, I am an old, tired, and doddering archivist trying to avoid becoming a caricature and wondering if there is anything more. Ah, yes, of course. Sara just reminded me (for the umpteenth time) to do the copier counts and check the email. Sigh, time marches on.
Best wishes for a great new year in 2016 from the staff of the Central Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan University Archives.
Post written by University Archivist Marcus Robyns