One day in 1997 a department secretary came into my office with a carton filled with five large, old-fashioned ledger boxes and asked me what to do with them. When he told me they contained the correspondence of Haviland Scudder Mekeel, I told him to leave them with me. Mekeel had been a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Wisconsin (UW) from 1940 until he suddenly died in 1947 and the contents of his office had been left with the department after his death. As I made a preliminary sortie through these letters from 1940-1946, I came across one from Floyd Lounsbury. As I finished it my colleague, Jim Stoltman, an archeologist, walked by my office. “Jim, did you know that Floyd Lounsbury worked on Oneida in Wisconsin?” “No, but there is a carton in the storeroom that has ‘Oneida’ written on it,” he answered. (The department’s archeologists had done an inventory of the contents of the vast basement storeroom not long before.) I thought I would go look for it—and I then forgot about it.
In 1975, education scholar Peter Dow wrote to a close collaborator that “If you haven’t already heard . . . Man: A Course of Study [MACOS] may become the best known and least used curriculum effort of the entire sixties.” MACOS was one of the last Sputnik-era curriculum projects and aimed to introduce elementary-school children to anthropology. More profoundly, the curriculum developers also hoped to teach students how to think like scientists about questions like “What is human about human beings? How did they get that way? How can they be made more so?”
In large measure, archives have made our careers. From Nash’s first book on the history of tree-ring dating in the American Southwest to Colwell’s intellectual history of the first Native American archaeologist, Arthur C. Parker,we have depended on archives to illuminate anthropology’s fantastic and twisted story. In 2009, we applied for a Save America’s Treasure’s grant, which provided funding to hire an archivist, Aly Jabrocki, to garner intellectual and physical control over several of the key collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), including materials donated by the famed pioneering anthropologist Ruth M. Underhill (1883-1983). The grant enabled us to explore this neglected historical resource—half-archived but entirely unstudied and unpublished since the materials were donated twenty-five years earlier. We were astounded by the result of Aly’s efforts. Rumors we had long heard of the archive’s historical wealth proved to be true. The Underhill Collection runs eighty-five linear-feet and includes such finds as original ethnographic notes from her work with Native Americans, syllabi and class notes from 1930s Columbia University, hand-corrected manuscript drafts, nearly three thousand photographs, and original sound recordings—all created during a life spanning more than ten decades.
My path as a historian forever changed during my first year in the archives.
When I began working at the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) in an ominous, cloudy box of a building near the end of the Washington DC metro train line, I thought I might write a dissertation on exhibiting material culture. Secretly, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or looking for. What I did know by this point in my research life and education as a historian was how to ask questions and search for answers from different perspectives. I also knew how to benefit from the expertise of archivists. The brilliance of archivists, in fact, is where this story really took a fundamental turn for me.
In summer 1996 I had the good fortune to spend four weeks at the American Philosophical Society (APS) soaking myself in the Franz Boas archives there. The APS contains the bulk of Boas’s enormous correspondence, though hardly everything. Aside from the fact that there is something special about holding the original documents in one’s hands (very carefully), there is much more Boas material in the APS besides these letters. There are, for example, translations from the German of early family correspondence as well as notes for several lecture series he delivered, and a story Boas wrote and illustrated for his children recounting his adventures in Baffinland. Continue reading
This is the first entry in our “Archival Developments” series, in which we invite scholars to write and reflect on their experiences using specific archives. If you would like to suggest a contribution, please contact us at email@example.com.
Cora Alice Du Bois (1903–1991) is known for her studies in culture-and-personality and change in complex societies. Her personal and professional papers are divided among several institutions including Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley. Du Bois was educated at Barnard College (BA) and UC Berkeley (PhD) and spent much of her academic career at Harvard, where she would hold the Zemurray-Stone Professorship and become the school’s first tenured woman. She did fieldwork among Native Americans in the western US and in Orissa, India, and her work in Indonesia led to her landmark study, The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Asian Island.[i]
Susan Seymour, the Jean M. Pitzer Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Pitzer College and a student of Du Bois at Harvard, used Du Bois’s archival collections extensively when writing her 2015 biography of Du Bois, Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent.[ii] We asked her to write briefly about how her use of the Cora Du Bois Collection housed in Tozzer Library at Harvard, informed her work. Continue reading
Our ability to explore the history of anthropology in a substantive and empirical manner hinges upon access to primary and secondary source material. Since HAN was established in 1973, anthropologically relevant archives have gone through multiple material transformations that shape the way we do the history of anthropology. Today an anthropological archival collection might be fully digitized, however it remains much more likely that only parts of it or only a detailed description of its contents are accessible online. For those readers less familiar with archival collections and how to locate and access them, some basic resources and strategies might be useful.