Gold and black clock face, 2018.
history history relevance practical history pragmatic historian purpose of history using history

Challenge – Using Archival Materials in an Institution

Here is my second challenge related to locating and preserving historical resources.

Challenge – Using Archival Materials in an Institution

Visit your local historical society or museum, one that has a research archive open to the public. Ask to see a local newspaper from the year of your birth.

Spend time looking through the newspaper, noting anything interesting you find. Be sure to examine what was happening on the day of your birth, even if your birth announcement isn’t in this particular newspaper. And, if your birth announcement is in this newspaper, by all means, read it!

The Purpose of the Challenge: By reading newspapers from the year of your birth, you can learn what was happening in the world when you arrived. You’ll see the larger context of what your parents and grandparents were going through, the potential stresses on their lives, making it easier to connect with them and have empathy for them.

Aside from that, you’ll also learn the process for accessing research materials in an institutional archive. If you are not familiar with doing this, it can be a scary experience. You might feel as though you don’t belong in this part of the museum, like you are getting away with something or you’re not “scholarly” enough to use these resources.

From the standpoint of public museums, nothing could be further from the truth. A big part of their mission, beyond preservation, is access to the resources they hold. What good is preserving all these collections if no one can ever use them?

That said, there might be restrictions on certain items in an archive, usually due to their fragility or some other legal limitation. Or, there may be restrictions on what can be duplicated. Staff will let you know about these restrictions.

When you prepare for this challenge, be sure to check out the institution’s website for hours, location, and cost. There may be a fee to enter the museum to access the archive. Museums can’t care for their collections and have staff available to assist you if they don’t have an income. And if the museum doesn’t have a fee but accepts donations, be sure to put something in the donation box because these museums need cash, too.

You’ll want to allot enough time for your visit, as well. Try to carve out 1 to 2 hours for looking through the newspapers. It takes time for staff to retrieve items and you want to give yourself plenty of time to look through them. You’ll probably find you get so caught up that 2 hours will speed by in a blink.

This is an exercise that’s useful to repeat in order to get more comfortable with archival materials and the institutions that hold them. Plus, museum staff appreciate repeat visitors.