In a recent (and fascinating!) interview on Common-place, Meredith Neuman, associate professor of early American literature at Clark University, says: “For me, it will always be important to flail about in the archive, to allow one’s self to be surprised and confused by it. As I tell my students, you can go to the archive with what you think your questions are, but, if you are very lucky, the archive will tell you what your questions really are.”
Flail about in the archive. That’s right – so often working in the archive can feel like flailing and sometimes the scarier word it rhymes with: failing. Why can’t I find what I’m looking for? What I thought was there is not there. That correspondence only reveals mundane things I can’t use – sick kids and the travel plans of Aunt So-and-so. Now what?
Recently, I realized I’d been asking the wrong question in my research for an article I’m writing on pressed flower albums, particularly those kept before the years of photography. What had me stumped is the fact that herbariums, flower albums kept by amateur and professional botanists, and flower albums kept by (usually) women during their travels are visually quite similar. Pressed flowers are in each; the amateur botanist and traveler use strips of tape to keep the flowers in place on the page; the albums may differ in size and color, but not in any systematic way; and the viewer turns the page of the album, putting the flowers in motion, almost like an early film. The similarities had me confused. So I went back to the archive, this time the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, to look at a herbarium kept by a woman in Illinois in 1857 and a flower album kept by a woman in 1852 while traveling in Rome. What became very clear in looking at both in succession is that the affect differed–what it felt like to turn their pages. And what I came to understand is that the pressed flower in each meant something very, very different. In the herbarium, a pressed flower referred just to itself or was a record about that kind of flower, a specimen of that genus and species. The pressed flowers in the traveler’s album, referred to something beyond the flowers: a sight seen and experienced. In the case of album page pictured above, put together by Catharine Edes, the scene was St. Peter’s Basilica on an early April Sunday close to Easter. It was a day Catharine wanted to remember, and she used flowers to secure that memory. The archive told me I’d been asking the wrong question. I’d been asking: how are the albums similar and thereby related? The question to ask, I see now, is rather: how do the albums differ?
One more note—Meredith says something else crucial about the archive: “Interaction with library staff and curators is absolutely crucial to this sort of research. They are the ones who know the collections and who can tell you about material that sometimes isn’t even catalogued. Importantly, they are also the keepers of institutional knowledge.” We’ll talk more about this in our coming blogs!