Rummaging the Archives

by Lise Puyo

What does it mean to be rummaging the archives?

As a budding academic, I have been trying to make peace with the fact that my work might not really matter outside of a very narrow group of educational professionals who debate for a living. Approaching my dream job, working with textile museum collections, I felt that scholarship in this field was seemingly removed from contemporary life, and that trying to make outsiders understand how it ties to today’s issues would be a tough challenge. To be honest, I thought nobody would even read my books, if not peers and students.

My Elders are writers; their words stay with me, their recorded thoughts help me to live my life and deal with a wide range of situations. The works of these writers and anthropologists have been instrumental in shaping my worldview and my understanding of people’s motivation, habits, and behavior. I admire these authors for providing articulate, original, wonderfully written thought. As I grappled with my own field notes, my contradictory sources, and the pressures of writing, this admiration turned into reverence. They were the models of stability I strived to imitate, their works appeared to be the everlasting proof of genius and thorough research.

Benoît Thériault et Lise 800Benoît Thériault, archivist at the Canadian Museum of History, showing me the way into Marius Barbeau‘s papers.

When I started doing primary research in the archives, however, my images of those wise and calm researchers began to crack, as the idiosyncracies of individual characters emerged.

First, there is their handwriting. When you are facing a book, the only introduction you need is to familiarize yourself with the style of the author. Starting from the way they build their prose, you figure out a rhythm and a voice to read them in your mind—this will become their voice. In the archives, the introductions with the author start with his or her handwriting. How different it can be from what you imagined! Just when you think you have mastered the shapes of their letters, when you think you can read them, they shift from pencil to pen, they start writing on a train, or they scrawl an unintelligible note and you’re lost again. Sometimes, you realize it’s even another person writing. Another crack in the regular prosody you forged in the silence of your mind while reading the author’s book.

The chaos of exploring someone’s papers can be maddening. You have to know everything: who is this man sending a postcard from across the country? Who is this other guy, asking for help and offering to sell custom-made masks and cradleboards? Who is this woman, and why is her husband in prison in Boston? Where was this scholar in April 1922? With whom? Whose handwriting is this on his lecture notes?

Once you start making sense out of these pounds of paper, what appears is not exactly a powerful thought, nor even the scientific wisdom that might enlighten your daily life. In some folders, your subject is a reckless opportunist; in others, he appears heroic; in others, he is unequivocally petty.

In some folders, the many voices of someone’s daily life unfold as a complex pattern of relations, showing the impact of others on the published scholarship. The final book, you now understand, was a selective collection of pieces drawn from different minds, memories, and insights. The archives hold what’s left of those pieces. The act of confronting those pieces, and trying to figure out how they were sorted into the monograph, forces you to realize that anthropologists (as any other kinds of authors) always make choices. Even if these choices are mistakes, they have the potential to become canon after peer-review and publication. You recognize, with startling clarity, that fascinating data was left out, unpublished, and cast aside for host of reasons: it was too sensitive; it went against the canon; life got in the way.

Stephanie and Marge accession records Peabody Harvard 1024Stephanie Mach and Margaret Bruchac reviewing the archives of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University

Those admirable scholars were public figures, but they had real lives; they had to deal with bills, bankruptcy, love affairs, and unexpected challenges amidst their struggle to publish cutting-edge scholarship. Now, when you re-read their published works (after exploring their secret papers), the humming rhythm of literary style is disrupted by other voices: the comments of informants; laughter of friends; whispers of colleagues; and water falling from the paddle during an impromptu canoe trip. On the page, the richness of the authors’ voices fade amid formulations that were added, even demanded, by chairs, by reviewers, by editors.

This kind of deep reading then becomes a habit that will infiltrate all of your academic readings. You will want to know where each assessment comes from; you will want to know if the author was in the field himself, or if someone mailed him this piece of information. You will want to know who he met with, who he interviewed, how he was perceived by his collaborators and his students. You will want to know if he is telling the whole story, and what is being left out.

Letter from Speck to Sapir 800Frank G. Speck witing to Edward Sapir, in the Sapir papers at the Canadian Museum of History archives.

My perception of scholarship has changed. What was once perceived as one piece—a book, or a series of books—has become a collection of multiple pieces. One voice has become many voices, a polyphony that has yet to make sense. The patterns for assembling these pieces and the harmony in this chorus depend upon the choices you make, which are influenced by the people and events around you. Rummaging the archives, you find yourself confronted by the same problems the researcher tried to solve, and you begin imagining other patterns, other perspectives, other solutions.


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