Archival Visits

Today I took half of my supervisor’s class to the Three Village Historical Society Museum and to the Rhodes Collection at the Emma Clark Library. The class is a 300 level course, and the students were visiting the sites to get an idea of what kind of topics and materials are out there for their seminar papers, which would focus on one element or another of local Long Island history. I could tell that they felt out of their element and a little “in over their heads” in an archive.

I remembered my first time visiting an archive as an M.A. student in 2010 and feeling so intimidated. Can I touch that centuries-old manuscript? What if it breaks, rips, crumbles in my hand!? What am I supposed to do with this material anyway? How do I know what’s important and what’s not? One’s first time performing archival research is a challenge. It’s not the same as reading scholarship that does the work of interpreting and translating the raw material/data for the reader.

Sensing the class’s apprehension, I encouraged them to enjoy the experience of working hands-on with diaries, ledgers, letters, court documents, etc. from centuries ago. I told them to simply have fun with it. One of their biggest hurdles is definitely choosing a topic, so I told them that it’s natural to feel an immense amount of pressure to choose the perfect topic that you can be sure has enough easily accessible material on it and that can be turned into a 20-30 page seminar paper, but I suggested looking very generally into any topic or local community (or both) that interests them, or, if they don’t have an interest yet (which is often the case since they don’t even know what’s out there yet), to look into anything that they’re even remotely curious about. There were some sighs and smiles of relief around the table, and I was glad to see a few students raise their hands to ask the archivist questions about potential topics.

I forgot to get a picture of the diaries and ledgers that were sitting on the table in front of me! I’m so mad! The ones immediately in front of me were from the 1860s-80s and included names so familiar to me from my work with the censuses from the same time and same community- Satterly, Jayne, Hawkins. It’s always a cool experience to see the real life side of what can often look like abstract names and data in a chart- person X paying 2.60 to travel to Babylon and then Manhattan, person Y sailing to Brazil for several months, person Z hiring a neighbor’s hand for a day to help with farmwork, person N manumitting his slave!

I’d like to post about my recent experiences teaching, but it’s late. It’s after 10 PM, I just got home from a Board Meeting with the Nassau Community College Alumni Association, and I’m pretty worn out! Maybe I’ll post about teaching on Thursday after my 8:30 AM class. Thanks for reading.

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