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The Archival Imagination at PSU

Here, find some highlights of the creative archival work being done by PSU Americanists. This is a follow-up to grad RA Liana Kathleen Glew's panorama of Penn State's Special Collections below.

While Penn State is home to a wide array of Americanist material in Special Collections and many libraries have digitized their holdings, there is still value in traveling to a collection. One might find meaning in a non-literary object, make connections with scholars and archivists in the field, or find surprising insight in a dusty folder of ephemera. Krista Quesenberry, Erica Stevens, and Layli Miron describe these experiences as graduate students who received CALS funding for travel to research collections. Professors Ebony Coletu and Sean Goudie share the surprise and insight that a trip to the archives can offer later in a scholar’s career. As these researchers tell us, there is a unique emotional combination of enchantment, thrill, and – sometimes – disappointment that comes with holding a direct connection to the past.

Krista Quesenberry visited the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale with CALS funding in 2013 to continue a project on the autobiographies of modernist American author and editor Margaret Anderson. There, Krista experienced the thrill of discovery when she found what she calls an “archival oddity.” This discovery has since fueled her fascination with women’s self-archiving and driven her to ask questions about the archives of modernist communities. Krista’s find also provided material for the International Auto/Biography Association-Americas conference and the Modern Language Association Convention. “In each instance,” Krista told us, “I've had the chance to develop my ideas, make connections with fellow feminist archival scholars, and learn about new archival research methods.” Krista has since returned to the same collection to prepare an article. She recommends “approaching an archive for the first time with an open mind and to explore what it offer[s]” because what you find might just be “the foundation of some of the most exciting scholarly work and best professional connections” in your career.

Erica Stevens, a 2014 recipient of the CALS Graduate Travel to Research Grants award, describes how her work in TulaneTulane’s Louisiana Research Collection “complemented and challenged” her research. She traveled to investigate Francophone writers whose poetry and journals revealed tension with the Choctaw and Chicasaw tribes. Erica found these insights crucial to her work, stating that “including these understudied authors in my dissertation allowed me to create conversation between travelers, natives, and creoles.” Erica also experienced the enchantment of the ephemera folders in the collection, where she found “a striking pamphlet from one of New Orleans's most luxurious hotels. The large pamphlet included woodcut images and a short story about a Reconstruction battle that took place within the hotel.” As this unusual artifact was not archived the same way the papers were, Erica would never have found it without traveling to the collection. The moment she found most personally thrilling, though, was finding an unpublished letter from Charles Chesnutt to George Washington Cable. “This single letter, in which Chesnutt asked the New Orleans expert Cable about a simple historical fact, allowed me to consider how Chesnutt thought about historical accuracy in his late-career novel, Paul Marchand, F.M.C.” By entering the archive with a mind open to surprises as Krista recommends, Erica was able to experience the excitement of discovery and apply her findings to her dissertation in a nuanced conceptual way.

Layli Miron traveled to the US National Bahá’í Archives in northern Illinois with a 2016 CALS award. Layli entered the archives with a determined goal: “to find unpublished writings of two US women who, after joining the Bahá’í Faith in the early 1900s, exerted their rhetorical skills to inject Bahá’í ideas into public discourse both here and abroad.” Layli found the scripts of Martha Root’s twenty-five speeches between 1924 and 1935 with the assistance of a dedicated archivist. She was able to photograph the documents at the archive so that she could later transcribe the speeches. The second woman whose writings Layli hoped to find was Laura Clifford Barney. After a few dead ends, she worried that she might not find Barney’s writings. Fortunately, just before she left, Layli found transcripts of two of Barney’s 1909 speeches about her experience in Palestine and Persia. Layli writes that “this find enthused me because it shed light on Barney's efforts to connect Americans and Persians, a topic I’d begun to explore through her plays. Besides the payoff for my research, my experience in the archives taught me that reading archival materials (especially handwritten texts) can take a long time; for short visits, a camera allows postponement of thorough reading!” Layli’s experience shows us that a successful trip to the archives requires patience and an archiving method of one’s own to preserve the more challenging and surprising finds.

Professor Ebony Coletu’s current book project, Forms of Submission: Writing for Aid and Opportunity in America, theorizes how application forms and paperwork affect an individual’s access to finances, employment, and education. Professor Coletu has found that looking at these documents in an archive destabilizes how we think of eligibility and competition in application processes. Though we often think of bureaucratic decisions as efficient and systematic, Professor Coletu has found “decision-making about aid in particular is often premised on inadequate funding for social ideals. Underfunding puts pressure on selection to justify limited allocations within arbitrary boundaries bundled into ‘eligibility’ or ‘competition.’” She has particular interest in the since-discontinued Slater Fund, the “first national scholarship competition accidentally launched in 1890.” The fund rejected W.E.B. Du Bois for applying after a deadline, but, as Professor Coletu found out, there was no deadline. Though each form seems specific to its institution or time period, Professor Coletu has drawn much larger conclusions from them about how bureaucracies function. They rely, she argues, on “institutional ambivalence rather than strictly enforced policies.” With a creative, systemic view of these individual archival documents, Professor Coletu draws conclusions about bureaucracy as a whole.

Finally, like Erica Stevens and Ebony Coletu, Professor Sean Goudie has experienced the ways that archives can challenge the objects and significance of a project. Professor Goudie researches North American and Caribbean relations and was recently fortunate enough to examine private archives held by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants. He read diaries, journals, and literary manuscripts about the period when Julian Hawthorne, author and the only son of Nathaniel, “lived in Jamaica in the 1890s with his family trying (badly) to make a fortune growing cucumbers and tomatoes on a former sugar plantation for export to the US market during the winter months.” The image here is of Julian landing in Jamaica in 1897. Professor Goudie confirmed some of his own speculations about the relationship between the Caribbean and US corporate expansionism at the turn of the century but was surprised to discover how interdymanic Julian’s risky tropical business adventures were with his published and unpublished writings. “So, too,” Professor Goudie attests, “such materials have inspired me to consider non-literary objects from the vantage point of what we might term an archival imagination.” For example, Professor Goudie found significance in “the broken and inoperative railroads that were once the chief mode of transit across Jamaica and Panama.” His experiences in Caribbean and US archives pushed his understanding of what material he might include in his project and helped him make connections between “past and present moments of hemispheric trade and commercial and cultural exchange.”

A scholar might refer to the body of material within her work as “her archive.” This material, as the author knows intimately, isn’t self-organizing. To yoke together the material she considers relevant, she must first sift through the stacks, digital collections, and archival boxes full of letters, pamphlets, and ephemeral odds and ends. If one approaches the material with a properly lively imagination, what one finds in those boxes can disturb, reignite, or redirect an entire project. As our scholars above have noted, entering the archive with a mind open can shed light on much more than just the texts and objects within the carefully-sorted boxes.


*Images are courtesy of the Creative Commons, the Tulane Louisiana Research Collection, the US National Bahá’í Archives, and The Century Magazine, 1897 (Julian Hawthorne "Landing in Jamaica").