The Archives from a Public History Outsider’s Perspective

The world of archiving, before I came to volunteer at the WLA, was a field that was completely foreign to me.  I am a graduate student in poetry, and although there is a certain appreciation and study of the past that come natural in writing and studying poetry, I had never thought about where, why, or what we might keep papers and artifacts in safekeeping.  In fact, I have virtually no background in archiving or even public history.  I had decided to become a volunteer because of my general enthusiasm for women’s history and leadership that had been cultivated from my experience of completing my undergraduate degree at an all-women’s college.  I had trust that whatever I gained from exposing myself to the archiving environment would provide me with a different vantage point from which to view not only my writing, but the context of my field of study in general.

Entrance into a discipline that you are completely unfamiliar with can be, to be honest, a little unsettling (especially to your ego).  While my tasks have mainly revolved around writing up content for the website and helping with social media posts, I soon found that there were still many opportunities to interact with the materials of the archives themselves.  Knowledge that is taken for granted by any student who has taken a simple public history course was information that I had to be instructed in.  But I was unsettled not by just my lack of foundational knowledge, but also by my lack of understanding of the true nature and goals of an archive.

The WLA is located on the 3rd floor of Piper Hall.

The WLA is located on the 3rd floor of Piper Hall.

Approaching as a poet, my first instinct when I come across an old photo or document is to think: How cool!  How can I interpret this and what kind of emotions/ideas does it evoke that makes it relevant?

Thinking as an archivist, however, urges me to think beyond my immediate instincts. What is the document’s context?  What is the story of the people involved in it?  How/why did it survive?  There are always connections and stories present even in the least conspicuous of records. The world has been constructed almost entirely by unsung heroes, but the information surrounding them and their stories are in existence, and still able to speak to us—as well as advise us. In this way, the archives hold a sort of tangible relevance that is nearly unique to the field.  Here you can hold not just the documentation of history, but the actual cogs and gears, so to speak, which make up the working totality of the present.

I understand that may sound a bit dramatic, but it’s very true.  My main appreciation for the field has been at how dedicated one must be to making these things available for public discovery and research at the same time as preserving them as best as it is possible.  There is definitely a search for deeper understandings of the present (which really can be called an understanding of reality) present in archiving, but more impressively, there is the effort to make this understanding public and influential in the making of the future.

In thinking about relevance to my personal field of study, I see mirrored desires.  Poets like to think they are trying for a deeper understanding of reality that is relevant to the past, present and future.  In fact, ideally, I think the point is to share that understanding with others.  However, in my experience, this is where the poet usually fails.  They tend to be lofty or cryptic (I mean this as endearingly as possible), often aiming their understanding to be shared with a distinct circle of peers.  In this respect, my vision for my own studies has been altered.  Those in the archiving field have the sole knowledge and practice to preserve and decode artifacts; however the goal of their work is not to explore this knowledge for themselves, but to make its relevancy clear to the public and those in all sorts of fields of study.  My time volunteering here in the archives has not only given me insight into a different way at looking public history, but it has also made the importance of their goals very clear to me. I would love to see my field of study put the same amount of effort into sharing the understanding that has been cultivated with a much wider audience.

BrittanyBrittany Tomaselli is a Poetry MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago where she works as a graduate instructor of Writing and Rhetoric. In 2013-2014, she volunteered at the Women and Leadership Archives, Loyola University Chicago.

 


Loyola University Chicago’s Women and Leadership Archives Blog is designed to provide a positive environment for the Loyola community to discuss important issues and ideas. Differences of opinion are encouraged. We invite comments in response to posts and ask that you write in a civil and respectful manner. All comments will be screened for tone and content and must include the first and last name of the author and a valid email address. The appearance of comments on the blog does not imply the University’s endorsement or acceptance of views expressed.


 

Blogging Away at the WLA

Welcome to the blog of the Women and Leadership Archives (WLA), located on Loyola University Chicago’s Lakefront campus, Chicago, IL. It is my pleasure as Director to do the first post and set the stage. The blog will written by myself, WLA Graduate Assistants, and guest bloggers. Topics revolve around WLA collections and events; women’s history; and the joys and challenges of working with archival records. It’s my hope the blog is informative, interesting, and fun.

The WLA is located on the 3rd floor of Piper Hall.

The Women and Leadership Archives is located on the 3rd floor of Piper Hall on the campus of Loyola University Chicago.

The WLA began in 1994 and is directly linked to Mundelein College, an all-women’s college begun and operated by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs). Mundelein ran from 1930 until 1991 when it affiliated with nearby Loyola University Chicago. That’s the short version of Mundelein College’s history and for something more in-depth, see our Mundelein College Timeline. The WLA grew out of the vision to preserve the legacy of Mundelein College and collect records of women in leadership. To find out more about the WLA including basics such as hours, collections, programs etc., visit our website, which also includes archival nuances such as our collection policy and partners.

I became Director of the WLA in March, 2013, almost two years ago. It’s been a wonderful ride so far and I greatly enjoy my job. Last fall, someone asked me what it felt like to stand on the shoulders of history, meaning working with collections of women leaders. The question caught me by surprise as I’d frankly not analyzed what I do at the WLA in depth or thought of it in that way. I think many of us work diligently away at our jobs, moving quickly from task to task, doing what needs to be done, often not stopping to reflect on deeper meanings.

So, I pondered. The first things that came to my mind, when I stopped working long enough to sit quietly and reflect, were enthusiasm and responsibility. I feel extremely enthusiastic about the WLA and its collections. The breadth and depth of women’s records are fascinating and inspiring. I am often amazed when I discover records already in the archives or take in a new donation. I can’t tell you how often I think “wow, this is really cool!” While I admit that last statement isn’t very profound, it speaks to my excitement and enthusiasm for WLA collections.

I’m not sure if responsibility is an actual feeling, however, I’m going with it. I feel a strong responsibility and accompanying drive to promote the WLA, make us better known, and increase access to the collections. What good are cool records if no one knows where they are or uses them?

It’s my hope this blog is a place to discuss archives in general, the WLA specifically, and women’s history. I anticipate a fun ride: one that is interesting, challenging, and educational. Please join us as we blog away at the WLA!

IMG_0021-149x110Nancy Freeman became Director of the WLA in spring, 2013. Prior to that, Nancy worked as an archivist and records manager at a wildlife research facility for the USDA in Colorado. Nancy has worked in the archival field since 1999. When not working on all things archival, Nancy enjoys spending time with her family and knitting.


Loyola University Chicago’s Women and Leadership Archives Blog is designed to provide a positive environment for the Loyola community to discuss important issues and ideas. Differences of opinion are encouraged. We invite comments in response to posts and ask that you write in a civil and respectful manner. All comments will be screened for tone and content and must include the first and last name of the author and a valid email address. The appearance of comments on the blog does not imply the University’s endorsement or acceptance of views expressed.