Daily Archives: July 25, 2019

The So-What Question in Archives

This post was contributed by Nicole Horowitz a graduate student in the OSU School of Writing, Literature, and Film, who recently completed an internship with curator Anne Bahde. Nicole examined women’s periodicals from the modernist period to look at the intersections between literature and material culture during the era.

            Upon entering the Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) as an intern, I found myself excited about so many different aspects of special collections and archival research. However, I’ve long felt that this propensity to be interested in so-called “old things” was rather innate, as opposed to a learned quality. This brings up an interesting “so what?” type question. What does it mean to be interested in material culture and archival research? What does that mean for scholarship in English literature? Is there an intuitive way to marry these two fields? And moreover, can this framework of marriage between disciplines (or, more acutely, between a field of scholarship and the material print culture than underpins it) be applied to different fields of study?

            The answer to this question has been, on the whole, tricky. In explaining the work of my internship (and to some extent, my thesis project in general) to my colleagues, I feel that specter, that so-what, so abundantly. Their work is largely forward thinking, using materials created in the last few years to underpin arguments about the changing nature of our world through climate change, through digital media, through rhetoric and its many applications. My work privileges the past: spends a lot of time mining the small details of artifacts housed there for insights, for distinctions, for joy.

            And maybe therein lies the answer, on some level, to the “so what.” I find archival work joyful. Particularly the work I do, looking at periodicals from the 1920s, it is hard not to get caught up in the optimism of the Modernist moment. This optimism is not unknown to those who don’t have a vested interest in periodicals. It is the reason why The Great Gatsby has been made into two films; why Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has found success. There is a sense of optimism that swaddles the era and the material produced from it. This manifests everywhere; in the clothing depicted, in the “you can do it yourself!” nature of sewing patterns and recipes. In the wonder-laded tone of the letters to the editors, gushing over new technology (electric billboards! New cold medicines!). In the advertisement of new ingredients (pineapple! Canned tuna!) perhaps before unseen to middle America. In the construction of the cityscape as a place to been seen in new clothes, buy new things, partake in new experiences that enrich the notions of what it means to be alive. And while in 2019, we might not find the same sense of wonder in the bright redness of a silk-styled robe or an advertisement for an electric phonograph, there is a relevant underlying question: where does that sense of optimism live in us today?

            Furthermore, there is an old, perhaps all too much used adage about history: why it’s important, why those who don’t understand it are doomed to repeat it. I would say that archival work is less concerned with the cautionary aspect of that adage, and more invested the mileage of historical reflection. Those who do not know what has come before are unable to innovate. They cannot do something “new” if they do not understand what is “old.” In this way, old things are the greatest teachers in the world. They show us the place from where we’ve come. In the case of the work I do: a place where American society is innovating inclusivity, perhaps in a clunky way, but with a vigor that suggests the ability of humankind to move past its limitation. These materials demonstrate both the successes and failures of print media of the time, and in so doing, give us a map of a training ground that allows us to be better in the modern world. And through that, we understand that the legacy of activism, of anti-racism, of feminism, is longer, more tangled, and might include more types of expression that we are accustomed to.

            I have found my research process dangling between the poles of being enthralling and incredibly frustrating. It is hard to do work in which there is such an abundance of material in some directions, and almost no information in others. It can be frustrating when things are missing, torn away, or when materials are not as engaged with modern relevance as anticipated. But still, I would argue that archival work is not only important in its physical/material incarnations, but also on a philosophical and even emotional level. And that this latter aspect is the way into the rest: it is the gateway, the evangelical pathway through which all archival research is conducted and insights created.

            In this vein, I cannot help but think about the difference between the reaction of my colleagues when I tell them about my research and when I show them things I have found. On the one hand, hesitation. Lack of engagement. On the other, as I hold up a picture on my phone of a long-forgotten F. Scott Fitzgerald story entitled “The Pusher in the Face” (complete with an illustration of a man, clad in his 1920s best, pushing a woman in the face, exactly as the title would suggest), enthrallment. A look of “what is this, and why didn’t I know about it before?” It is in these things, these looks, that the true thingness, the magic, of archival work is revealed. It is in this thingness that we continue to thrive.