Archives Show & Tell

Archives & Manuscripts

This week, our Archives and Manuscripts class was afforded the rare opportunity for a peek inside Paley Library’s treasure vaults: the archives, rare books stacks, and working spaces of the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University. Some of the highlights of the tour included a cuneiform tablet, a lovely illuminated book of hours, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin clippings “morgue file”, and the collection of protest materials from January’s Pittsburgh Women’s March.

Even after years working with rare books and archives, passing through these quiet spaces retains a forbidden, hallowed feel for me. I once worked with an archivist who jokingly described herself as one of the “top men” mentioned at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, referring to this scene:

Like every other historian I’ve ever met, I deeply revere these objects for their aesthetics, longevity, and connection to past users. Those who work in (and are allowed to tour) archives are so lucky to have access to these priceless products of human culture. I witnessed the wonder in my classmates’ faces as they encountered the SCRC’s treasures: So much humanity in one place! And even though we’re still at least mildly awed, it is easy to forget how intimidating these spaces can be to the uninitiated, as described by archivist Andrew Chernevych in this recent article:

Visitors hesitantly enter through the glass door. “Archives.” Is there anything to see here? The adults uncertainly look around, the little boy is attracted towards the colorful mural, the teenager barely lifts her head from iPhone…

This is the “first contact.” And this moment is full of potential. This kind of random visitors can be engaged, educated, and perhaps even converted into archives users. What it takes is an interactive opportunity that would provoke their interest and get them exploring. It takes a hook.

Chernevych’s institution, Galt Museum and Archives in Canada, has introduced a “show table” for the purpose of providing this hook, and overcoming the initial uncertainty of how one is supposed to act in such a sacred space. The table displays a selection of items from the collections (duplicates or reproductions), encouraging visitors to investigate them with a magnifying class, get curious and ask questions, and otherwise physically interact with pieces of history.

I’ve encountered this approach to visitor engagement in museums before, but never in archives. I wonder why? How would my experience be changed if I could touch the items in the exhibit display cases, magnify them, juxtapose them next to other things? Would that inspire me as a user, or would I find it overwhelming? I think it might be worth considering.