I spent last week in Washington, D.C. doing research for my new book project. I love visiting archives - not only because of what they offer to my particular research, but also for the insights I gain into archival work itself. Last week as I was chatting with a curator, she casually remarked that so far this year they had seen several academics like me come in with substantial research projects. She said she was really excited about that, because "we are going to learn SO MUCH about our collections this year."
At first that seemed quite backwards to me. After all, wasn't I there to learn from THEM? Then it hit me that here was the very stereotype of the archive that I warn my students against: the archive is NOT the hallowed repository of facts and history and knowledge to which we must bow down. The archive has a lot, and the archivists know a lot. But they can't know it all. As another curator put it to me last week, some collections are so big you can "never hope to get your arms around them." Ultimately, we need to think of the archive as a space for engagement where collection and interpretation meet and produce scholarly puzzles for us to solve. In the parlance of my own discipline, the archive is a site for the working out of rhetorical problems.
With the help of folks at the Library of Congress and National Portrait Gallery, I started working out a few of those rhetorical problems last week. But I realize that I did also teach them a bit more about what they have. And I love that they get excited about that.
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Research news, commentary on visual politics, and a few old blog posts given new life.