In the year of the Silence Breakers, the Archives can also Protect Evidence of Sexual Violence

Time Magazine named its Person of the Year this week, opting to honor the many individuals and groups of people who had come forward with sexual harassment cases this year. After decades in which accusers of high-profile abusers had been disbelieved by the majority of bystanders, the “silence breakers” of 2017 shifted the narrative. Remarkably, it is the year after “post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in which these victims of abuse have finally been believed.

One thing that undoubtedly helped turn the tide of belief was the sheer number of silence breakers. No longer could claims of harassment be belittled as a “he said-she said” toss-up. CNBC correspondent Christina Wilkie summed up the situation best:

 

As more men in powerful positions are rightly toppled, I find myself breaking for the backlash. One of the ways to defend against the argument that these scandals are somehow faddish is to build the historical record of sexual misconduct ranging from assault to repeated harassment. By showing that this is not a new problem, activists can buttress their outrage against those who would belittle it. Archival research is one way to do that.

An archivist at Colorado College recently rediscovered extensive evidence of a past college president’s repeated crimes against women. The evidence was collected by James Hutchinson Kerr, a professor at the college in the 19th century, during the investigation into President Slocum’s abuses which forced him out of his office of 29 years in 1917. The papers, part of Kerr’s bequest to the college, had not been cataloged, perhaps intentionally. While the Slocum scandal was seemingly common knowledge throughout the 20th century, it was often spoken of in inexact terms, without the frank testimony of some of his victims. In 1954, after Slocum’s death, the college even named a dormitory in his honor. Today there is an active campaign to rename the building.

The Mennonite Church has had its own travails with the crimes of powerful men. John Howard Yoder, the leading 20th century Mennonite theologian, was censured and stripped of any official position in the 1990s after his victims were eventually believed and after various previous intercessions had failed to publicly deal with his abuse. More recently, a Mennonite missionary in Haiti was arrested for sexually abusing minors. The church has a long way to go in its reckoning with abuses it has long ignored or covered up. The blog OurStoriesUntold has been a powerful collective voice to draw attention to these abuses and call abusers to account.

All of this context made a recent post on AnabaptistHistorians very important, I think. In a relatively brief essay, David Neufeld shared a centuries-old story of sexual violence within the Anabaptist tradition. Remarkably, two women in Zurich in 1630 went on the record against Jakob Zehnder. Their testimony remains on the record though their abuser avoided serious consequences for his misdeeds.

That the phenomenon of men preying on women (and men), wielding their power in fundamentally violent ways, is centuries old should not come as a surprise. Neither should it blunt the outrage at more recent abuses. Instead, we should seek to expose these crimes in the past and present where we, as researchers, archivists, and citizens, come across them in order to begin some process of justice.

Conspiracy and the Archives

There was a brouhaha in October when the National Archives announced the release of extensive materials surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This release was, bizarrely enough, mandated by federal legislation passed in 1992 following renewed interest in the conspiracy theories surrounding the 1963 assassination stirred up by the Oliver Stone film JFK. Though the Trump administration redacted some of the material through national security concerns, the consensus seems to be that the material released will not confirm the existence of any conspiracy, and perhaps even effectively disprove those theories with the preponderance of banal material. But if you want to look at the documents yourselves, Politico has some tips for you.

Conspiracy theorist spreading the word. Photo by Jamie Kenny, used under CC BY-NC 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jakenny/6532480237

While that family of conspiracies has seemingly been put to bed, other conspiracy theories are preserved in archives. Continue reading “Conspiracy and the Archives”

How do you plan for a wildfire?

We learned a bit about disaster planning for archives–milk crates full of plastic sheeting, fishing line, chocolate, and many other materials are stashed in many a back corner–but there are some disasters you cannot plan for. The archives of Hewlett and Packard (the people, not the current company) were destroyed by the Sonoma County wildfires last month.

Historic marker outside of the garage in which Hewlett and Packard first began their company. Photo by samkinsley via CC BY-NC 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/samkinsley/2707592596

Continue reading “How do you plan for a wildfire?”

Mau Mau in the Archives

In class last night, we closed with a conversation about archival power. I’ve read a bit on the topic, notably some of Jarrett M. Drake’s writing in OnArchivy, but last night I was especially struck by the global implications of archival practice, especially as a tool of colonialism. It jogged my memory, and when I went home, I dug out a Radiolab episode from 2015: “Mau Mau.” In less than 45 minutes, this episode shows how archives have been a tool of colonial control, worked to preserve dissent, and ultimately (in this case) became a tool for revealing colonialist abuses (60 years too late).

You should listen to the episode, but if you don’t, here’s a brief version. In the 1950s, a popular rebellion sprang up to the British colonial regime in Kenya. The stories that spread around the world were of a fearsome terrorist group calling itself the Mau Mau committing horrific acts of violence. Those acts happened. Then the Mau Mau went quiet. The British handed over power to Kenyans in 1963 and left. Beginning in the 1990s, historians (such as Caroline Elkins) working in Kenya started to find stray papers in the national archives that documented internment camps. Elkins set out on a massive oral history project to gather the story of the British suppression of the Mau Mau and found horrific tales of torture and concentration camps. Using this evidence, several elderly Kenyans brought suit against the British government. They were told they would lose, but then they didn’t when the British government was required to provide evidence of its own misdeeds from its tightly-held archives.

Photo of Kenya National Archives by Ting Chen, used with permission via CC BY-SA 2.0) : https://www.flickr.com/photos/philopp/5377747222

Continue reading “Mau Mau in the Archives”

#AskAnArchivist

Yesterday was apparently #AskAnArchivist day on Twitter (not, as some users thought, #AskAnAnarchist), and the resulting thread gave archivists a chance to show off some of the things from their collections and share a bit of their lives with Twitter users.

Lots of archivists simply wanted to communicate the scale of their collections:

Some archivists posted photos of the sorts of things people might not expect in an archive:

User @EKuzina asked archivists to post Halloweeny archival material:

While I think we may have reached the saturation point of “[Inter]National _____ Day” (Oh please let us have reached saturation point!) hashtags like this one offer a distinct opportunity, not only to reach people outside the archival world but to also connect with colleagues outside of a conference environment. That the exchange occurs on Twitter also enables these conversations to continue throughout the year. I would be very surprised if the archives which participated didn’t gain a bunch of followers. Finally, events such as this encourage archivists, who may be weighed down by the everyday grind of processing, to look at their collection in new ways, to recognize the wacky and poignant material that sometimes blurs together. I enjoyed looking through the feed and I suggest you check it out!

An Evening at the Wagner

Last night I finally stepped across the threshold of the Wagner Free Institute of Science after having lived less than five blocks away for over a year. I have been meaning to check the Institute out, and finally had a good excuse: New Perspectives on Historic Collections, an evening of presentations from the recipients of the Temple University – Wagner Free Institute Research Fellowship.

Dermot Mac Cormack shows some of the glyphs of handwriting that would become the Willison font

I remember seeing the request for papers for the fellowship, first last September and then again in January when they did another round. I remember feeling at a loss. What kind of project could I do with the collection of “a Victorian-era natural history museum with more than 100,000 specimens”? In retrospect, I’m glad that these scholars were more creative than me. Their projects ranged from creating a typeface from a curator’s handwritten labels to creating jewelry based on illustrations in the Wagner’s archives.

Emily Cobb took inspiration from scientific illustrations at the Wagner to create some beautiful jewelry.

One project proposed by the Wagner staff and carried out by Tyler professor Byron Wolfe and student Daniel Kraus was the printing of two micro-negatives that hadn’t been viewed for probably a century.

Print made by Byron Wolfe and Daniel Kraus from a microscopic negative produced by the Langenheim brothers.

All in all, it was a fascinating evening, and inspiring. It was a reminder that archives contain multiple kinds of information and that I have been looking at archival material in pretty tame ways. The wheels in my head are spinning now, especially in conjunction with the readings for Studies in American Material Culture, and we shall see where they resolve in the near future.

My biggest regret about this evening of magic is that it seems to have almost no presence on the internet; I hope the Wagner puts up some photos on their website soon!

Schism at the Mennonite Church USA Archives

This week there was major news in the world of Mennonite archives. Or, seen a different way, nothing changed.

Some Prologue:

(WARNING: Initialisms Incoming!)

Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) was a denomination formed in a 2000 merger between the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) and the “Old” Mennonite Church (MC). The archival collections of the respective denominations remained on the campuses of two Mennonite colleges: Bethel College (an institution of the GCMC in North Newton, KS) and Goshen College (MC-affiliated in Goshen, IN). A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was developed in which MC USA paid an annual subsidy to the Bethel College Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) to maintain the GCMC papers under the umbrella (and ownership) of the MC USA Archives.

Now, to the present:

In the last year, MC USA moved its holdings off of Goshen College’s campus to its denominational headquarters and, at basically the same time, the MOU with Bethel College expired. The parties struck a deal that relieved MC USA of the burden of the subsidy (which last year amounted to about $42,000) and kept the collections at Bethel College, where they could be utilized by undergraduates. Continue reading “Schism at the Mennonite Church USA Archives”

Archival Process as Plot Mechanism

As I read “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, I thought of my current pleasure read, Lev Grossman’s Codex. One of the plot threads in Codex is a treasure hunt of sorts that takes the protagonists to a rare book library’s off-site storage facility to search the mound of unprocessed material, hoping to find a medieval manuscript that may or may not exist. While Greene and Meissner’s argument–that archives should focus resourcing on quickly, minimally, processing material rather than being exhaustive–applies more to institutional records than rare books, the same potential for a mound of “lost” information exists. The characters have gotten to the point where they’ve broken into a secure facility because they searched through all of the various databases at the library and the card catalog and couldn’t find a trace of this book. The same potential for discovery–and on the other hand, occlusion–rears its head in a whole subgenre of fiction. From Umberto Eco to Dan Brown, the idea that some treasure map might be out there somewhere if you only knew where to look has kept readers turning the page.

One of my favorite books of this ilk is A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which not only delights in archival discovery in a way that would make Arlette Farge proud, but also captures many other facets of archival acquisitions. Continue reading “Archival Process as Plot Mechanism”

Sir Terry’s Hard Drive

A few days ago, a hard drive containing the unfinished novels of Sir Terry Pratchett was crushed by an old-timey steam-roller by the executor of Pratchett’s estate. The event was captured in a series of tweets from the late author’s account and covered by such news outlets as the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, and the Washington Post as well as aggregators such as Mashable The Verge, and The AV Club.

Why did this (admittedly odd) event attract so much attention? I think largely because the crushing had resonance with the “embuggerance” Sir Terry lived with for seven years before his death in 2015: early-onset Alzheimer’s. This loss of memory echoed that one. Sir Terry’s legions of fans took the news hard all the way back in 2007, in part because one of the trademarks of his fiction was the quickness of his wit; it seemed cruel that it should be dulled by something beyond anyone’s control.

Continue reading “Sir Terry’s Hard Drive”