Record Collecting

Today’s post comes from Pascal Massinon, 2012 National Archives Legislative Archives Fellow.  Stay tuned to NARAtions as Pascal provides updates on his research and experience at the National Archives.

Dry fingers, dusty hands, and dirty knees. Common ailments for record collectors scouring through “new arrivals” bins and passed over shelves for rare used LPs. Historians don’t always favor vinyl, but many of us are compulsive record collectors of one kind or another. Hoarders all, we’re on the lookout for elusive documents, long-lost insights, and words that haven’t been read since they were first put to paper.

The obsessiveness required to hunt down both rare LPs and historical documents hit home when I joined archivist Kate Mollan into the stacks at the National Archives. Needles in haystacks come to mind, since the vast quantity of records produced by Congress makes clear cataloguing nearly impossible. According to last year’s Annual Report, the Records of the U.S. Senate take up almost 80,000 cubic feet of space, and in 2011 alone, the Senate sent another 2,523 cubic feet of new records. Whereas collections at the Library of Congress, presidential libraries, or University special collections can be described down to the folder or document level, the contents of the National Archives’ holdings, especially for materials from 20 to 30 years ago, are near mysteries.

National Archives stacks

A view of the stacks at the National Archives

To give you a sense of the heroic work performed by archivists to find materials for researchers, the finding aids that Kate found suggested that there were over 200 boxes of materials related to the Senate Commerce Committee from the 97th to 104th Congresses. Looking for anything on the hearings held by the Communications Subcommittee related to Digital Audio Tape in the late 1980s and early 1990s? Well, you might just have to open every one of those boxes to see what’s in their folders. All told, we might have opened nearly 300 boxes to find two folders worth of DAT documents.

One of the more striking lessons to learn in archival research is just how futile it is to strive for comprehensiveness in the amassing of your personal archive. I’m not sure historians always want to talk about it, but there’s always luck and happenstance involved when trying to track down materials, and for every bit of good fortune, bad luck can’t be far behind. Boxes can be mislabeled, documents can be filed incorrectly, a letter might finish after the first page, or a tantalizing document that’s part of a longer series might only appear on its own.

But the ideal of completeness lingers, the search for archival nuggets remains obsessive, and so the photocopies and photographs take up more and more space in filing cabinets and hard drives, waiting to be processed into coherent ideas and narratives. As much as we might yearn for readily accessible complete discographies, there’s no comprehensive iTunes Store or Spotify for historical documents yet (though they are coming, with the increasing digitization of government publications, historical newspapers, and the like), so the search happens in finding aids, the archival stacks, and the dusty boxes. Forgive my romanticism, but I’d hardly want it to be any other way…

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