Archival Developments

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.

A good starting point for many is the National Anthropological Archives (NAA), part of the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian Instutition’s National Museum of Natural History. A repository for the papers of individual anthropologists and anthropological organizations, it includes collections covering ethnography, archaeology, anthropological linguistics and biological anthropology.  Although the core of its collections cover Smithsonian research (including Bureau of American Ethnology records of 1879–1964 and even earlier), the NAA is continually accepting new material from scholars and institutions not connected with the Smithsonian.  Over 650 unique collections are currently housed at the NAA.

Many anthropologists’ papers, however, are housed in the archives of more local institutions to which these scholars were connected, such as universities and museums.   Up through 2009 the NAA attempted to collate into one alphabetical list all the 850+ anthropological archival collections it was able to identify.  Note that an anthropologist’s papers can be divided amongst more than one repository.

As indicated, it remains relatively rare for all or even most of the individual documents in an archival collection—whether correspondence, drafts of scholarly papers, field notes, photographs, sound recordings, or interview transcripts—to be fully digitized and available on the web.  However, the number of detailed manuscript collection finding aids (aka registers or inventories) to which researchers have virtual access on the Web is steadily growing as they are scanned and posted by archivists at the holding repositories.  This access provides the researcher the opportunity to access box and folder descriptions before contacting the repository or planning a visit.

Below, please find descriptions of several archival collections, including the Marvin Harris, Frederick de Laguna, and Edward S. Curtis Papers at the NAA, the Cora Alice Du Bois Papers at Harvard, the Fred Eggan Papers at the University of Chicago, the Edward E. Ayer Collection at the Newberry Library, and the Franz Boas Papers at the American Philosophical Society.

In 2009, David Price was awarded a Wenner-Gren Foundation Historical Archive Program grant with which to begin processing the papers of Marvin Harris (1927–2001), whose writings on anthropological theory and cultural materialism offer a fruitful source of data for anyone interested in the mid-to-late 20th century theoretical development of the field. Harris also exists as an important figure in the political history of the discipline as indicated by his participation in the organization of a symposium on the Vietnam War during the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in 1967. Harris would go on to make other critical public statements regarding the war effort, which one can find in this collection. In 2010, Harris’s daughter, Susan, donated the materials to the National Anthropological Archives where the processing of the materials continued. As of 2011, the register to the Harris papers is viewable and the collection is open to researchers at the NAA.  Prepared by Lorain Wang, the register also offers a detailed biographical note and a selected bibliography that is sure to give newcomers to Harris’s work a sense of his significance to the history of the discipline and important nodes of data in the collection.

Frederica de Laguna (1906–2004) was an ethnologist, ethnohistorian and archaeologist who was trained at Bryn Mawr (B.A.) and Columbia (Ph.D.).  Her fieldwork took her to Greenland and parts of the Northwest Coast and Alaska, and she also spent time on the Pima Indian Reservation surveying social conditions there.   De Laguna’s best known work is the three-volume Under Mount Saint Elias (1972) on the Yakutat Tlingit.  As editor, with her Bryn Mawr graduate students, of Selected Papers from the American Anthropologist: 1888-1920 (1960) de Laguna was an early proponent of the then-nascent field of the history of anthropology.  Her papers are spread out among several repositories, with a major portion at the National Anthropological Archives, which has made an inventory available online.

Cora Alice Du Bois (1993–1991) is especially known for her studies in culture-and-personality, and change in complex society.  Her 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 (B.A.) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D.) and spent much of her academic career at Harvard, becoming the first woman to teach in the Department of Anthropology.  She did fieldwork among Native Americans in the western U.S. and in Orissa, India, and her work in Indonesia led to her landmark study, The People of Alor (1944).   Some of Du Bois’s papers at Harvard are described online.

Fred Eggan (1870–1991) earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago where he worked under A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Fay-Cooper Cole.  Eggan is credited with bringing together the oft-considered competing American historical ethnology and British structural-functional approaches in his research.  His work focused on North American Indians and also took him to the Philippines.  Eggan’s 1955 essay “Social Anthropology: Methods and Results” is considered a masterful summary of work on North American Indian social systems.  His Lewis Henry Morgan lectures at the University of Rochester in 1964, published under the title The American Indian, constitute the most thorough and readable synthesis of American Indian kinship and social organization in the literature and serve as a model comparative study, according to one biographer (DeMallie 1991).  See the guide to the Fred Eggan Papers at the University of Chicago.

Recently the existing Edward S. Curtis archival collection at the NAA was expanded by the addition of over 500 original negatives along with correspondences, memoirs, manuscripts, and photographic prints relating to the work of Edward S. Curtis, whose photography has significantly shaped both popular and scholarly perceptions of Indigenous peoples of North America. Donated by Curtis’s grandson James Graybill in 2011, the Curtis collection is sure to attract interest as we approach the 150th anniversary of Curtis’s birth in 2018, however a comprehensive finding aid is not yet online.

At the Newberry Library in Chicago, funding from Roger and Julie Baskes, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and an Illinois State Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, has led to the digitization of over 4000 items from the Edward E. Ayer collection, a longstanding bastion of material for anyone concerned with the early colonial contact period of North America. Though not an anthropologist per se, Edward E. Ayer (1841–1827) is, in many respects, an important figure in the institutional history of the field. As a charter trustee of the Newberry Library whose private collection of manuscripts and books formed the basis of its original holdings, and as a cunning booster for the Field Museum, Ayer played a key role in the formation of the institutions’ whose holdings provide data relevant to those interested in the history of anthropology.   The Ayer Collection contains both published works and unpublished manuscript items numbering in the hundreds of thousands, only a portion of which has been digitized to create the Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection.

The American Philosophical Society (APS) has digitized the entirety of the Franz Boas Papers. Ranging from Boas’ emigration to the United States in the 1880s until his death in 1942, the collection has long been a rich source of information for those interested in the history of anthropology. Through the digitization project, researchers can now use the APS website to sort through correspondences with other key figures in late 19th and early 20th century anthropology including Edward Sapir, Elsie Clews Parsons, M.J. McGee, Alfred Kroeber, and many others. Photographic materials are relatively easy to navigate thanks to simple and advanced keyword search options. Of course, the papers are an invaluable vein of data for those interested in Boas and the Boasian paradigm more generally. Those interested in late 19th and early 20th century radical politics and social advocacy, as well as the ways in which American anthropology has intersected with these phenomena, are also likely to find the Boas material quite valuable.

Finally, for those interested in some background documents on the hows and whys of anthropological archives, see Preserving the Anthropological Record, edited by Sydel Silverman and Nancy J. Parezo (1995). Contributors include Regna Darnell, William C. Sturtevant and Don D. Fowler, and some topics covered are ethical considerations, preservation issues, and guidelines and strategies.

We will continue to highlight recent developments in the world of anthropological archives and their relevance for interested parties in this space, fully realizing that, given HAN’s inactivity between 2013 and 2015, readers may find that we are noting some developments which are by now common knowledge for many.  The Bibliography editors welcome news of archival collections for announcing here.

Works Cited

DeMallie, Raymond J. 1991. “Eggan, Fred.” In International Dictionary of Anthropologists, ed. Christopher Winter, 174–175. New York: Garland.

Silverman, Sydel and Nancy J. Parezo. 1995. Preserving the Anthropological Record. 2nd ed. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

1 Comment

  1. Would love to write something up for you about the Tuzin Archive for Melanesian Anthropology, at the University of California, San Diego. We have both analog and digital/digitized materials from many anthropologists who have worked in the islands of the Southwest Pacific. This link will take you to a collection description for the materials which have been digitized
    For more information please contact me or my colleague, Cristela Garcia-Spitz.

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