Archives and Moby Dick

Since entering my hiatus from weekly blog posts, I’ve returned home for the summer to enjoy the weather, catch up on reading, and relax. Well, not so much relax – that lasted about a week before I needed to get back to work.

I’ve certainly missed writing blog posts, and since many people (primarily family and friends) are confused about what I’m doing, I thought this would be a perfect way to set the record straight.

Three days a week, I’m interning at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library. Located in the historic downtown area of New Bedford, the Library’s façade allows it to hide by blending into the rest of the buildings, save the overhang in front of the entrance.

Working in the Library seemed like a great fit after working with Dr. Miller, and I wanted to be able to continue looking into history of New Bedford. However, I wanted to take that next step by working in an aspect of the museum I had no experience with – in this case, the work that goes into housing the archives.

My assignment this summer is to create a finding aid for the Teller Papers, a collection of documents from Walter Magnes Teller. Teller was a biographer of Joshua Slocum, the first man to circumnavigate the globe alone. The Teller Papers were assessed by the library in 1989, but all we currently have is a master inventory list. The list is helpful in letting me know what is in the nine boxes and countless folders, but the materials aren’t really in an order conducive to researching. This is where I come in, with a simple job description: I put papers in order.

Of course, my job IS a bit more complicated – I replace folders and papers that could be damaged by acidity or flimsiness; I chronologically organize the materials and folders so that the documents aren’t haphazardly thrown together; I put the folders in boxes in a way that makes sense to researchers; I create a document that accurately describe the contents of each folder/box concisely.

So far, I’ve finished Series A of the finding aid (correspondence.) Series A was quick and simple, because most of the correspondence had already been separated, and I just had to organize the materials within the folders. However, Series B (research materials) is taking a bit longer because there a lot more research materials than there were letters. And while looking through all of this paperwork is certainly interesting, it can certainly be exhausting. 

When I take a break from work, I’ve been reading Moby Dick, the famous tale of Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab, and the whale. (I had previously only read the New Bedford-related chapters.) This historic novel is certainly one of literary importance, though it has one fault – Melville has a tendency to be REALLY wordy. He spares the reader no details about the history of whaling, the process of capturing and butchering whales, and the intimacies of crew friendship. On one hand, this is good for the reader to have the background of the whaling industry – on the other hand, it makes reading the novel EXTREMELY difficult to figure out what aspects of the story are actually important. 

This is sort of what working with an archival collection is like, especially in the organization stage. There is an overabundance of information – all relevant to the topic at hand, but it’s difficult to tell what one actually wants to know. It’s been one week, and I can tell you all about the confusing trial towards the end of Joshua Slocum’s life, and all the ports his schooner Pato docked at – but is that really what is important? Do I need it to completely understand the story of Slocum’s life?

The answer is a most resounding YES for anyone else – any researcher should have access to all the information Teller had and experienced if one is to understand his analysis and documentation of Slocum’s life. But for an archivist, I’m not so sure. As much as I understand it, the archivist’s job as I understand it is not really to have complete understanding and further analysis of the works they handle. However, it IS their job to be able to maintain and manage these collections, in order for others to access and interpret. And as a researcher, I think that’s pretty cool of archivists to be able to do that.

In Melville’s case (at least from what I’ve read) he intended to make Moby Dick a collection of sorts, describing to 19th-century America the ins and outs of the whaling industry. But it was a commercial failure during Melville’s lifetime, probably for this reason – people looked at Moby Dick solely as a novel, not as an archive. I think being able to see it as both educational (archive) and sensational (novel) makes the piece that much more interesting. 

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