Here’s what I love about historians: they are storytellers. Whether we know it consciously or simply find our way there, we search the past for a semblance of something relatable or funny or interesting. We further our interests (or those of others) in efforts to remember something worth remembering.
On the other hand, archivists and librarians collect stories. They house materials in order to keep them in context, providing the information to the world, only if you know where to look.
There could not be a better match.
I was extremely excited to join the New Bedford Whaling Museum as an intern this summer, I’ve grown especially fond of its history and legacy over the past year. I applied to the Archives & Library position as I figured in my goal of becoming a professor, I’ll have to do a lot of work with archival research. I wanted a behind-the-scenes look at things – being able to see researchers in their element while discovering just what it is they look at.
The bulk was devoted to Mss (Manuscript) collections, which featured a little bit of everything in Old Dartmouth local history.Though many of these collections had been accessioned by the museum, they hadn’t been processed or given a proper finding aid so that researchers could make use of the materials. So, I took inventories, processed and organized the contents of various folders, created finding aids, and then coded the information for the Museum website.
These tasks, though long and sometimes difficult, it was my favorite job. It was reading moments in time, getting some pieces of evidence and having to form a coherent storyline through folders and boxes And the stories were endless. I looked at documents from the very beginnings of the Dartmouth/New Bedford area (late 17th century) to letters from the early 1990s.
In regards to whaling, I learned an enormous amount. With the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, this was a perfect summer to fully immerse myself in the city’s whaling history. I was able to see multiple sides of the story – whalers writing home to their wives and children explaining day-to-day activities on board; businessmen managing their vessels and crew from home; wives and children describing life in bustling communities thriving on the maritime economy. I saw its rise as an American industry, the city’s prominence as the whaling capital, and its decline (especially with the Arctic disasters of the 1870s.) Encompassing myself in this time was fascinating because there was always a new angle from which to view the industry. And just being in the research library, I was surrounded by an overwhelming amount of information that I began to understand how influential whaling truly was to the Old Dartmouth area.
But it wasn’t all about whaling – I explored topics like Joshua Slocum’s solo circumnavigation of the globe (Teller Collection), the Gold Rush (Rounsevell Family Papers), life in Martha’s Vineyard (Eliza Russell Papers), beginnings of mill construction (Howland Family Papers), and antique dealers (Winfred W. Bennett Papers), just to name a few. The pacing of the job was probably my favorite aspect – I was able to study a wide range of subjects in a short period of time, without an overwhelming feeling.
I also got to spend some time on the digital side of things – learning to code was surprisingly easy once I got the hang of it. (I still keep the template out just in case, though.) The most helpful tip when it comes to digital collections is management is this: LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.) While downloading logbook files, converting file formats, and uncovering bugs in a code weren’t the most glamorous of tasks, their importance was undoubtedly valuable. I started to investigate the pressing issues of archives and libraries entering the digital world. Do GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) have the time and capabilities to digitize collections? How should these materials be uploaded? What will happen when servers are filled to capacity?
Although the research library is primarily for the Whaling Museum, it is also home to the collections of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society and the Melville Society. This meant people were coming to the library for tons of different reasons. While a library is not the greatest forum for interaction (my mother was shocked I could spend six hours sitting without talking to anyone), I found that everyone in the library – employees and visitors alike – was friendly and enthusiastic. (My favorite visitors, by far, were the kids from Ocean Explorium. Their confusion over the card catalog and obsession with the possible hidden money in the old bankers’ desk was very adorable.)
My work in the Library focused on two goals: to ease access to research and to preserve the materials. And ultimately, I found that archives intend to do just that. But more so, I learned what librarians and archivists require: a passion for information – for organizing and formatting the mess of materials that arrive, for sharing these materials with others, You are the first one to view these accessions as stories or vignettes of someone’s life, and do so without any background information at all. It’s an amazing job – one I’d love to try my hand at again someday.