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Making History, or There’s an Archives Under Your Bed

This essay originally appeared in Hoax Zine #8 – Mythologies.

My job is to make history.

Really though, as an archivist, I am entrusted with telling stories, crafting sequence and narrative, setting the backdrop for students, historians, and casual perusers of the past.

This is what archival work is like: dusty; moldy; sometimes monotonous; peppered with moments of discovery; attached to cross-references; all around us.  Working now at my second institutional archives job, I exist at the end stages of history (re)creation.  But I’m out of a job without what you’re probably calling junk.  Yes, I want your bus ticket stubs, the envelopes you got letters in, and maybe even those pictures of your old cat.  Don’t throw them away, but write the important dates and names on them so that twenty years along they still make sense.  These are the raw materials of history, of the big myths and the bigger retellings.  History, especially from an archival standpoint, is a process of co-authoring/authority.

I had the privilege of cutting my history-making teeth at an explicitly feminist institution.  Working in a women’s history archives as a student, I was often handed apparently minor historical figures – these were not the Gloria Steinems and Ida B. Wellses of women’s history – and asked to make them compelling to researchers.  It wasn’t hard.  Once I found my way in, there was always something grander waiting.  One woman, at first glance little more than a mediocre poet and career eccentric with an assortment of jobs and no Social Security number, turned out to be an important World War I photographer who volunteered her services taking portraits of military men before they shipped out.  Her photography studio was down the street from Alfred Stieglitz’s and they ran in the same artistic circles during her years in New York City, before she moved north to open a restaurant and write.  She was also a cat breeder.  Using everything from budgetary books to census records to moldy envelopes, I traced her path around the northeast, to Europe, and back.  Her papers told primarily the less interesting parts of her story – they consisted largely of poem drafts, some of which were about her cats, even – but with some genealogical work and careful arrangement they became evidence of a full life, rather than the detritus of another “crazy cat lady.”

Oh, and this same woman also married a man who was convicted of chemical espionage during World War I and who was deported back to Germany.  Never a dull moment, archival work.

Still, apart from the endless amusement at history’s stranger moments, the most important thing I’ve taken away from my work as an archivist is that, while not everything is important, everyone has something that is.  We all live in community, and the snippets of ourselves that we leave behind are telling in regards to what that community was like at a time.  As an undergrad, I wrote an archival paper about ‘90s girlzine culture.  That was before Hoax, but those zines inform the milieu in which Hoax currently appears, and a newer paper could engage the writers, the readers, the artists, the editors, in trying to understand what zines mean now.  That means you.  So when I say that my job is to make history, I’m not alone.  Maybe I do it on the books, but this job is a partnership.

In other words, I want that stuff under your bed and in the back of your closet.  You’re making history.

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