New energy in the archives: Reflections on the Archival Fellowship Program

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by Leanora Lange, Processing and Institutional Archivist and Digitization Projects Liaison, Center for Jewish History

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The summer 2014 Archival Fellows and the Center archivists who ran the program. From top left to bottom right: Katalin Rac, Martha Stellmacher, Martina Ravagnan, Rachel Miller, Jessica Parker, Aleksandra Kubica, Leanora Lange, Isaac Moore, Sarah Ponichtera, and Rachel Harrison. 

The summer of 2014 was a bustling and exciting time at the Center for Jewish History. In addition to a number of other summer events and programs taking place in the building, the Center hosted six archival fellows as part of its new Archival Fellowship Program funded by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. This program brought in six graduate students in the humanities who had language skills and subject knowledge relevant to the collections of the Center’s partners and who were interested in better understanding what goes on behind the scenes in an archive. The fellows spent six intensive weeks at the Center, during which time they were introduced to archival theory and practice through discussions and presentations as well as hands-on work with collections from the American Jewish Historical Society, the Leo Baeck Institute, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

The 2014 summer fellows were Katalin Rac, Martha Stellmacher, Isaac Moore, Jessica Parker, Martina Ravagnan, and Aleksandra Kubica. Each of these stellar fellows came to us with a background in Jewish studies as well as diverse interests in performing arts, journalism, education, international studies, and museum studies. At least one fellow (and usually several) could speak and read Yiddish, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, or Polish.

The aim of our fellowship program was to give our fellows experience working with archival materials from the other side of the reference desk in an effort to open up new professional directions for them and to create a pool of highly skilled scholars and (possibly) archivists who will be able to support Jewish history archives in the long term.

It was my pleasure to be a supervising archivist for this program. A team of colleagues and I worked on the program from start to finish, from assisting with the grant application that made the program happen through evaluating how it all went in the end (and preparing the next grant application). Along the way, I found out several things. First, I love to teach others about archives. Secondly, I greatly appreciate the energy, humor, and intellectual simulation that can come into a workplace when you have the chance to reflect theoretically upon why you do what you do. This becomes especially rich when usual workflows conflict with best practices, codes of ethics, or theses put forth in archival journals.

Learning through teaching

As I’ve gone through grad school and moved into a professional position as an archivist, I’ve increasingly found that the best way to learn something is to teach it. This was certainly the case this summer, as my colleagues and I not only taught our fellows how to process collections but also conducted seminar-style discussions of readings on archival theory. It was a joy to work with colleagues to put together what amounted to a syllabus of the most essential and most fitting readings for our program. It was even more exciting to lead the discussions. By preparing these sessions and leading discussions, I discovered more about the texts and theories they put forth than I had by reading them as a student.

This was particularly pronounced in relation to one of the seminal texts on archival processing from the last decade—Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process,” often referred to as MPLP in the archives world. While I read this article in grad school, it was entirely different and far more meaningful to encounter this text with the archival fellows. We assigned it to them five weeks into the program, at which point they had all become oriented to our sets of guidelines for processing collections and had gotten into a groove with their collections. We threw MPLP at them at this point to make sure we had concrete situations to pick apart and also to make them question some of the guidelines that they had so diligently been following. It worked. Like many readers, they were surprised at Greene and Meissner’s suggestions of getting rid of archival processing actions such as refoldering collections or (the ever-so-notorious) removal of metal fasteners. They disagreed. They had already been doing some of these things.

This was a fabulous opportunity to pull out the core point of Greene and Meissner’s text—that MPLP is not shorthand for a list of strict processing rules (“never touch paperclips”) but rather a call to action for archivists to maximize access to collections. It is about processing efficiently according to collection needs, not about making rules that apply to all materials. Over our discussion period, we were able to pull this core thesis out of the text and evaluate the processing decisions that the fellows had already been making accordingly. By the end of the discussion, some fellows were able to confidently say that they deemed the collections that they were working on (e.g. the Displaced Persons Camps in Italy Collection) as valuable, diverse, and fragile enough to warrant taking more time than an archivist would need to take, say, with institutional records from the 1980s that arrive in ordered folders. Coming from academia, the fellows also had to strike a balance between the desire to have access to as much material as possible as a researcher (an argument for more access) and the need they felt to treat these valuable materials with special care behind the scenes (an argument against access).  

It turns out that selecting readings and preparing them for discussion with inquisitive scholars was just about the best way to become better acquainted with the foundations of my profession. Returning to some of the seminal texts of archival theory in this way and being able to discuss concrete situations with others who were encountering these texts for the first time was definitely a highlight of the archival program for me. 

Bringing life into the archives

Another major highlight of the program was the change in energy it brought to our workspace. Center archivists are lucky to have an open lab space that allows us to work independently and ask questions of each other when they arise.  Four of the six fellows were mixed in with archivists who regularly inhabit our lab space, doubling our lab population at the time and injecting a great amount of life to our everyday work. Our usually busily quiet space became a constant forum for the myriad of questions that archivists so often make decisions about on their own. This highlighted just how much thought goes into processing, how many small steps are taken along the way, and how behind every one of these steps lies an opportunity for questioning, learning, making more efficient, or even pushing back against the decisions that have been made in the past.

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Archival Fellow Jessica Parker at her desk in the Center’s Shelby White & Leon Levy Archival Processing Laboratory.

The first few days after the archival fellows completed the program were particularly quiet in the lab. The energy of their presence had passed through, inciting conversations, laughter, moments of surprise, moments of triumph, and ultimately, I think, a shared sense of accomplishment among the fellows in having successfully processed archival materials and among those of us running the program for having introduced six wonderful scholars to the archival profession.

I now look forward to other opportunities like this to gather renewed energy for my own work by teaching others about it. 

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