Shared inquiry in the archives
26 July 2016 – Hillel Arnold and Laura Miller
The staff of the Rockefeller Archive Center recently organized a reading group that meets once a month to discuss a set of readings related to archival and historical practice. The RAC is a repository of historical materials and a research center dedicated to the study of philanthropy and civil society. We have both a large archival staff (including reference, collections management, processing, digital programs, and donor relations teams) and a much smaller Research and Education department (comprised of five historians). The reading group provides an opportunity for the entire staff to come together to take a methodological look at the work that we do, building a shared understanding of each other’s expertise through critical reading and conversation.
In the April meeting of our reading group, the Research and Education department led a discussion about public history. The readings–Ronald Grele’s “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of a Public Historian?” (1981), Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller’s “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” (2006), and Robert Weible’s “Defining Public History: Is It Possible? Is It Necessary?” (2008)–prompted a lively and very productive discussion about common threads in the development of the archival and public history professions, shared challenges about the value of our labor, and shared questions about power and social justice in our work. In short, it raised fruitful lines of inquiry about the intersection of public history and archival practice.
During our discussion, several themes emerged which highlighted shared professional concerns of archivists and public historians. Participants noted that the development of public history as a discipline paralleled a growing interest in outreach and engagement in archival practice. This is particularly true in the area of archival acquisitions; archivists, taking their cue from public historians, endeavor to collect more collaboratively, contemporaneously, and with an eye to underlying questions of societal power and representation in established historical narratives. These professional trends appear to have a common ancestor in the practice of oral history, and perhaps a common descendant in community-oriented history projects, including community archives.
Partly as a result of this focus on “shared authority” and engagement, we noted that archivists and public historians both have to negotiate the tension between surrendering control over processes while also maintaining a professional identity. We’re all looking, it seems, for that crucial expertise or special intangible that our profession brings to the world as a way of valuing our labor, while also actively trying to value other sets of expertise and labor that work toward the same ends.
Ultimately, our conversation raised more questions than it answered. Are public historians by definition archivists, or, conversely, are archivists public historians? What lessons can we learn from each other about ways to see, in Corbett and Miller’s words, “who has legitimate power, who is willing to share it, and under what conditions”? Does our common sensitivity to power and its uneven distribution across society provide some possible common points of leverage for both archivists and public historians? Can a shared inquiry, across professions, of the ways in which we share authority help us both to focus and refine our respective identities?
While we don’t have all the answers, the reading group offered a space for RAC staff to engage across professional boundaries and better understand both our own work and the work of our colleagues. Despite our many shared interests and concerns, public historians and archivists are often siloed into distinct camps in both our professional organizations and in our workplaces, which often prevents greater collaboration and dialogue (a point lamented in the 2014 joint Twitter chat between the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee and the SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable). This siloing is also evident at the RAC: the archival staff works to preserve, process, and make our collections accessible to our researchers, while the Research and Education department focuses on communicating the history of philanthropy to our donor institutions, student groups, and the public. Setting aside an hour a month to focus on the why and the how of our roles has helped us to build common ground. A methodologically focused discussion has reinforced the notion that we all have expertise but also have something to learn, and has helped to build appreciation of one another as colleagues and allied professionals.
~ Hillel Arnold is the head of Digital Programs at the Rockefeller Archive Center, where he leads a team that provides technical leadership and expertise to the organization. He holds an MA in history from New York University and an MLIS from Long Island University’s Palmer School.
~ Laura Miller is a historian at the Rockefeller Archive Center. She received her Ph.D. in twentieth-century American history and M.A. in public history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.