One Short Day in the Archives

Ah, spring break – the time when college students put aside their studies to relax, have fun, and maybe even travel to some warm destination. Well, I guess I tried to do all three of those – unfortunately, the weather didn’t quite cooperate for that last one, and I ended up in Washington D.C. with a couple inches of snow on the ground.

            After last week’s exciting discovery, I was able to take it a step further and make an appointment in the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History. I got right off the plane at BWI and quickly made my way through rush-hour traffic to the National Mall.

Once inside, I was met by one of the archives assistantat the information desk. From there, we went through a few coded doors and long hallways to reach the Archives Reading Room.

            The Reading Room was a crowded space, slightly smaller than one of the Elm classrooms here at UMass. I locked my items outside the room, save my phone and some of my notes. Once in the room, I was briefed by a fun Smithsonian PowerPoint set to cool jazz, reminding me of how to make an appointment with the archives and how to handle some of the documents. It felt a little intimidating at first – explaining all the forms and the regulations in taking physical or digital notes – but the director was very helpful in answering all of my questions.

            After all the proper paperwork was filled out, I used the finding aid to request a few of the boxes in the collection. I was specifically looking for three things:

1)    The Kanaka whaleman photo! Of course, I already knew this one existed, but I really wanted the experience of seeing it in person.

2)    The whalemen’s boarding house mentioned in Bulletin #27

3)    Any reference to Smilie or the US Fish Commission visiting New Bedford

The first box in the collection was supposed to have records of correspondence and authorizations for the US Fish Commission, so I was hoping to find something for item #3. The first thing in the box was a large journal, noting every important appropriation, authorization, or appointment. Unlike many of the documents I would find later, the handwriting was quite easy to read, which made looking for key terms like “Smilie,” “New Bedford,” and “whaling.” Unfortunately, nothing came up, though it was cool to read about the 1883 London International Fisheries Exhibition from invitation to review. The other letters in the collection were interesting to review, though the majority of them were written long after the years I was looking for.

The next three boxes were all photo collections, which required me to wear what the director called “debutante gloves.” I was extremely careful, taking the time to view everything  – the fishermen, the houses, the towns and cities. Many of the pictures were taken in New England, so it was neat to recognize different spots.

And there it was, right where the archivist had told it would be – the Kanaka whaleman photo. “Awesome” does not begin to describe what it was like to see it in person. It’s not that big – about the size of a regular piece of paper – but the writing and detail was clear. I had to keep myself from interrupting the other researchers with my excitement, though they could probably tell by the enormous smile on my face.

I also found the photo of the whalemen’s boarding house, though I didn’t realize it right away. The first time I saw the photo, it didn’t have any markers or identifiers that matched the description I had (which had been one of the easier ways to find the whaleman’s photo.) However, it did say New Bedford on the front, so I took a picture of it to go back to later.  Once it was time to sign off that I had viewed the collection, I took a moment to go through my notes and found the photo number of the whaleman’s house I was looking for – it matched the one of the Mariner’s Home photo in the file!

I spent about two hours in the archives, looking through all four boxes and dozens of folders. When my time was all set, I let the director know and found my way back into the museum. (My first stop once out of the archives? The maritime history exhibit, in which I saw many of the items from Bulletin #27.)

The best thing about my time in the archives was simply the feeling that I was an actual researcher. Not to downplay any of the work I’ve done so far, but handling the letters and photos firsthand is an experience similar to those of looking through old scrapbooks of my family. Being in the reading room might have shut me out from the rest of the world, but it made me connect with the primary sources. It certainly won’t be my last experience in an archive, but I’m so glad a Smithsonian got to be my first. I hope it feels this amazing each time I make a find or I get the chance to be hands-on in my research.

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