Limitation and Division of Archives

From the Carter reading on Silences, I was intrigued by the term “total archives” (216) in reference to Canada’s practice of documenting the historical development and all segments of a community by acquiring both official administrative records as well as related personal papers and corporate records ( The practice emphasizes collecting a wide range of materials, including architectural drawings, maps, microfilm, and other documentary forms. ( I wonder if in addition to make archives more inclusive and all encompassing, it is also important to note that archives are not neutral spaces without vested interests (Carter, 216) nor are they apolitical (Springer). Perhaps the format of the archive can reflect this political nature rather than only trying to work against it. Additionally, the concept of “total archives” is interesting because, as Carter states “the records in the archives tell a very small part of a much larger and infinitely complex story.” Therefore, not only do archives consciously exclude narratives, there are also narratives that will never be told because of the nature of archives not being able to tell the whole and complex story.

I am reminded of our discussion about differentiating “the past” with “history” and how these words carry with them different connotations. “The past” is assumed to be more personal and less factual perhaps whereas “history” carries with it an assumption of high accuracy and credibility, often based in what is available in archives. The concept of history as imagination reminded of a project I worked on in a high school history class comparing Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette to scholarly articles and books that we had read about Marie Antionette geared at an academic audience. The prompt was something like “Which of these two types of narratives gives a more accurate portrait of this historical figure. Choose one and defend it.” The purpose of the assignment was to examine our prejudices toward “higher” forms of history telling and to understand that neither very well evidenced histories nor fictionalized stories can tell a full version of a person.

I think this is relevant to working with the Bryn Mawr Archives because we are dealing with a collection of personal histories of people who have been connected to the college. Working with archival materials, there is only so much that you can gleam, because people don’t always say what they mean nor are they producing or saving items thinking that their materials will end up in an archive. I am reminded of the readings that we had about first students, particularly Linda Perkins’ The African American Female Elite: The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880-1960. In the article, the letters that were used as evidence to support specific claims about opinions about African American Women, but often I felt it was difficult to believe certain understandings of the feelings of students given the evidence presented.

On a separate note, the formatting of the archival space intrigues me. In the example of the Collection Development Policy of the John J. Wilcox Archives of the William Way LGBT Community Center, some of the divisions in the formats of material seems hard to differentiate. For example, where is the division made between “Artwork” and “Artifacts and Objects” and why? What is the purpose of these divisions and are there archives organizing their material in other formats?

Selling History and Our Place in It

An important focus to understand the concern for “outsider” history is the framework of “what sells.” As noted by Filene, history is thriving in popular culture, whether on television, movies, or books. History sells whether the personal histories in the example of StoryCorps or generalized and glossy history like in the Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. People seem to be interested in history, but more importantly they are willing to spend money to feel connected to a history. In our discussions this idea of a marketable history also came up. Our discussions touched on points about what makes Bryn Mawr marketable as a college for students to apply and for alums and outsiders to give money to the college. Either way, it is important for the college to make sure it tells a history that people want to consume, just like museums are attempting to do also. As stated by Filene, the success of a museum is measured through public support (23). In reading this article and the Trouillot chapters, I was reminded of the many museums of Jewish history that I’ve visited in the U.S. and in Europe. These are a rather recent occurrence in public history. For example, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia was opened in 1976, the Jewish Museum Berlin was opened in 2001, the Museum of Jewish Heritage was opened in New York City in 1997. Often in Jewish history museums, family stories or family rituals are what are on display. As outlined by Filene with the Tenement Museum example especially, museums that incorporate a family history or a community history are popular because these are the stories that are more relatable to the general public. It is of increasing importance as the field of public history moves toward professionalization to not ignore the “simple” act of storytelling. As we move forward in our discussions I hope we do not move too far from the valuable personal and community narratives that the public often responds well to.

The piece of Trouillot that stuck out to me in relation to our project was the idea of the inherent ambivalence of the word “history.” We are both the actors and the narrators of our shared history (2), in this case the history of Bryn Mawr College. This creates a potential struggle, as we are both living and reflection on the history we are creating. Additionally, Bryn Mawr more than most places I have experienced, feels much more like it has a “legacy of the past” that does not come from anything that the past bequeathed itself (17). With our many “traditions” and “historically” specific way of doing things, it is difficult to get into what actually happened versus what we believe to be our past and therefore incorporate into our personal identities as members of the community. Bryn Mawr’s history and most likely the histories of many colleges are prime examples of what Trouillot describes as histories that have been produced outside of academia (21).