Stephanie Bennett 2017-03-09 12:24:49
Our collections are not simply objective records. Archivists document contentious tragedy and emotional outpouring, which affect us as they do donors and researchers. So how do archivists respond to donors, the public, or institutional policies in light of tragedies? How do emotions affect the profession in terms of collections acquisition, the perception of memory and truth, ethics within and outside the field, and so-called “objectivity”? Four archivists draw on their experiences with challenging collections. “I Second That Emotion” first appeared as a panel session at ARCHIVESRECORDS 2016, moderated by Stephanie Bennett.* Korean and Vietnam War Veterans in Arkansas: When Do We Reopen Old Wounds? Stephanie Bayless, National Archives at San Francisco Archivists at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, within the Central Arkansas Library System, connect with local veterans through two oral history projects. As of June 2016, the Korean War Project contained 54 veteran interviews and 108 archival collections; the Vietnam War project, scarcely a year old, contained 12 interviews and collections. These projects were emotional for me. As the main collections processor at the time, I worked through stacks of letters and photographs that young men sent home and thought of my daughter, only a few years younger. I heard the emotion as a veteran relived traumatic memories in an oral history interview. Veterans were often telling stories for the first time in more than 50 years. I learned three central lessons in my work. First, treat donors and interviewees with respect. I know that seems obvious—we would never intentionally be disrespectful—but remember that we are all impacted by stories differently; it is important to bring the same level of enthusiasm to each donor. Front lines, desk job, and everything in between—all of these stories are important. A donor may share only once, so work to make their singular experience rewarding. Next, consider memory versus fact. In these projects, we talked about events occuring up to 65 years ago. One donor may remember something one way, another very differently. Some stories have been told and perfected for decades; others are being told for the first time. What do you do with a story that might not be factually correct? It’s perfectly reasonable to question your donor. You might spark their memory, or they might say, “The history book is wrong!” That is okay. Question your donors, but don’t challenge them. The important thing in this situation is to keep the conversation going. Finally, I learned to recognize when my job is to listen. Dealing with emotional events is cathartic for everyone, and sometimes all that is needed is a good listener. Both the veterans and I got more out of the process when I took the time to listen and absorb their stories. What we were able to leave behind for future generations is the better for it. The Congress-on-Your-Corner Tragedy: How to Help a Community Heal? Chrystal Carpenter, Elon University On January 8, 2011, a gunman opened fire at Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ constituent meeting in Tucson, Arizona. Six were killed and 19 injured, including Giffords. Grief and support for victims manifested in three memorial sites: the hospital, the shooting’s location, and Giffords’ local office. My connection to the memorials shifted from community member to archival advisor responsible for the coordination, relocation, triage, and onsite removal of memorial items, thanks to my work then as University of Arizona’s congressional archivist and Congressional Papers Roundtable membership. As a Tucson resident and an archivist, I was laser-focused on preserving these materials. Concentrating on my archival training and working alongside colleagues guided me through this emotional, chaotic time. Eventually, I became the first archival consultant for the January 8th Memorial Foundation, dedicated to creating a permanent memorial. As I worked with materials and related organizations, my role was not to dictate how things must be done, but to provide a framework that allowed others to make informed decisions for themselves. Acquisitions diplomacy happened throughout the process—with many stakeholders. Victims and their families required much different assistance than repositories or the content creators themselves. I tried my best to weave through groups to provide useful information and limit added emotional stress. Many challenges and takeaways arose from working on this multifaceted project. As an archivist, I grappled with copyright and ownership questions. The materials were located on public and private land, created for a public official or private citizens, likely without the intent of permanent retention. As the media reported on the archiving work, the public sought more information about their items’ preservation or, alternately, how to retrieve their items. As an individual, I grappled with questions surrounding my archival work and ethics. How much advice should I give? Am I serving the community “right” or “best”? Am I serving as an individual or as a member of my institution? Ultimately, I am content with the role I played, but as tragedies, spontaneous memorials, and the need for trained archivists persist, I hope we continue to probe these questions. 9/11 and the Marathon Bombings: What Can Archivists Do? Krista Ferrante, MITRE Corporation Archives Stories of victories, however you define them, can buoy a community. But we’re drawn to tragedies as well, shared stories of suffering, because they can create deeper community identities. I work at the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit federally funded research and development center chartered to work in public interest. On September 11, 2001, our researcher, Dr. Carl Max Hammond, Jr., died on United flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center’s south tower. I worked to get a memorial plaque on our Bedford, Massachusetts, campus and to get other memorials added to the 9/11 Museum’s registry; I’ve also done oral histories with people who knew Dr. Hammond. Previously, I worked at MIT at the time of the marathon bombings and shooting of campus police officer Sean Collier. Similar to other public tragedies, an ad hoc memorial of stuffed animals, flowers, and a variety of items began to accumulate and was rained on before archivists arrived. The most affecting object for me was a lady’s ballet slipper; inside, a note said, “Sean, we can dance anytime.” It broke my heart. These experiences led to some initial questions: Should everything be saved? Who decides what gets saved—family, affected institution(s), the community, archivists? What opportunities are there to expand collecting? What archival collecting policies are in place? Should those change? What are the best practices? And, of course, why save things at all? Most people have experience with collective memory. For example, depending on your generation, everybody knows where they were on 9/11, Kennedy’s assassination, or Pearl Harbor’s bombing. Collective memories are powerful and can be appropriated as evidence for action or change. Think Boston Strong or Freddie Gray. These words evoke emotions that can be used by different players in different ways. Frederick Harris, director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia University, developed a framework to understand how collective memory can be pulled into collective action, using evidence from the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The formal memory process—through oral histories, collections—is what archivists do. But we need to be mindful of that process’s impact on collective memory and social appropriation. Do our policies hold up, or are they challenged? Whose stories or collective memory are we adding to? Who is represented and who is left out? All of these questions beg serious discussion. The John F. Kennedy Assassination: Whose Experiences Should We Remember? Stacey Chandler, JFK Presidential Library After John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy received more than 1.5 million condolence letters; she appeared on national television in 1964 to promise that every letter would be preserved in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Today, the JFK Condolence Mail documents the connection many people felt to this tragedy. As historian Ellen Fitzpatrick wrote in Letters to Jackie, people often associated Kennedy with personal hopes, including racial equality, economic justice, and global peace. Because these hopes were not fully realized during his presidency, Fitzpatrick noted that the flood of letters was less about JFK than about “those whose hearts he captured and their dreams for their country.” Despite its emotional heft and Mrs. Kennedy’s promise, the collection was sampled in the 1980s and now comprises ten percent of the original volume. Processing documentation shows that project leaders aimed to preserve “an understanding of the phenomenon” of the letters, believing that the overall concept of the mail demonstrated the impact of JFK’s life and death. That concept, rather than each unique experience of grief, was thought to be worth saving. Our documentation reveals that VIP and international mail was kept, as were letters judged to be “good” or “well-composed.” Particularly as applied to 1960s Americans, such guidelines can have strong race, class, and geographical implications, and can potentially exclude writers with disabilities. Archivists recognize sampling’s importance, but we must ask: who is omitted from the narrative when only the “good” is retained? These decisions can have the power to validate viewpoints, alienate users, or create silences in the record. Today, the sampling is difficult for reference archivists to explain to the collection’s most frequent researchers: people looking for their own letters or those of family or community members. Because the collection’s post-sampling arrangement didn’t allow us to search for specific letters, archivists are now undertaking a project to rearrange the remaining material alphabetically and improve service for these requests. We’ve learned that while archivists cannot undo past decisions, we can work to acknowledge their lasting impact, respond to user needs, and honor emotional ties to materials in our care. Have you experienced an emotionally challenging collection? How have you or your organization handled it? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your story to Archival Outlook.
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