A Life with the Archives
Jonathan Spence in conversation with Judith Schiff, March 2004
The president-elect of the AHA has to absorb an awful lot of things in the first few months that follow the election. I found that I spent almost the whole of that period trying to get up to speed—or at least beyond a crawl—on an incredible range of projects, reports, analyses, subcommittees, briefings, linked affiliations, policy shifts, and financial details, all of which were handled with apparent insouciance by the dazzlingly effective staff. At the same time, I gradually came to realize that the pages of Perspectives were open to one as well, should one find that one had something to say that seemed to fit that informal and energizing format. My two immediate predecessors, Lynn Hunt and James McPherson, used the pages of Perspectives to share their thoughts on many matters concerning the writing of history, not excluding political and social commentary. I however was not sure I had anything to say that I had not already said elsewhere. But then came the news from the unfolding war in Iraq, which forced me to think not only of the human casualties but also of libraries, museums, and archives in Baghdad and elsewhere, about how precious they are and how fragile despite their bulk, and how little is sometimes known about their contents. I began to think: archives, collections, acquisitions, artifacts, preservation, distribution, shelving, storage, classification. I began to think "Public History." And a name popped into my head right away: Judith Schiff. In all the years I had known Judy—and they were many—despite all our conversations on historical materials, our shared projects, our discussions of students' essay topics, our membership in the same group of fellows in the same residential college, I had never asked her about how she came to be doing the work she had done so long and so well as chief research archivist at Yale. Now I did ask her, and this is what she told me:
Schiff: After graduating from Barnard College where I majored in history, I returned to my hometown, New Haven. Intending to work for a year before continuing my studies in history at Columbia University, I applied to Yale and within a week was hired by the Cowles Foundation for Economic Research. After about six months I heard that there was a position available in the Historical Manuscripts Department in the library to catalog papers of New Haven families. I applied and was quickly selected for the grant position funded by the New Haven Foundation. With my history research experience as a base, I was trained on the job in a combination of library and archival techniques to prepare what was then called a register, now a finding aid, to describe the collection as a whole, as well as catalog cards that served as a cross-index for all of the collections. This integrated system was considered a modern step forward, as most repositories had either a card catalog, or registers and guides, not both. I was indeed fortunate that the major papers I processed were those of the Whitney family. It was not the better known Eli Whitney family, but that of the Yale linguist, William Dwight Whitney, and his brother, the Harvard geologist, Josiah Dwight Whitney, for whom Mount Whitney is named. I was fascinated to read the contents of thousands of letters from scholars and scientists all over the world, and to know that I was the first person to open them since the 19th century.
Spence: But how did you make the next step, from on-the-job training and some casual work, to something far more concentrated in terms of archival specialization?
Schiff: The following year I took a leave of absence to study for my master's degree at Columbia, and returned to Yale on another grant position to process the papers of John V. MacMurray, a career diplomat who served in the first half of the 20th century, most prominently in China. This massive archive was kept at Yale temporarily for the use of a professor and then went to Princeton. Yale then offered me a professional position as an archivist and librarian. In those days, a library degree was required, even for an archivist, and I decided to both work full time and attend the library science school at Southern Connecticut State University at night.
Spence: Was there a hard decision here, a move in which the work that most interested you tugged you away from a career as a history teacher?
Schiff: My decision to become an archivist, instead of a teacher as I originally planned, was reinforced over the years as I developed relationships with donors, such as Anne Morrow and Charles Lindbergh, Millicent Todd Bingham whose mother Mabel Loomis Todd was the first editor of Emily Dickinson's poetry, and Walter Lippmann, and also with the scholars and writers who used the papers, including Arthur Link, John M. Blum, John Tolland, and Barbara Tuchman. After the death of Charles Lindbergh in 1974, William Jovanovich, the director of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, asked me to be his coeditor, to prepare Lindbergh's unfinished "Autobiography of Values" for publication. For two years, while continuing to serve as chief research archivist in manuscripts and archives at Yale, I worked on this project in Lindbergh's principal archive at Yale, and at other repositories of his papers in St. Louis and St. Paul. The autobiography was published in 1977, and the next year I was asked to teach a Yale Residential College Seminar that I titled "The Lindbergh Experience." The American studies course led to my appointment as visiting lecturer in the American studies department, as a fellow in Timothy Dwight College where I taught the seminar, and as adviser in the history department. For over 20 years I have served as senior essay adviser to dozens of students and graded dozens of essays for other advisers.
Spence: What have been some of the challenges in technology and methodology that you have had to become an expert in, so that you could do your work with full satisfaction, and on an increasingly national and then global scale?
Schiff: Microfilm had come into general library use during the 1930s. Some of the innovations of the 1960s included the first safe and practical method of photocopying—the Xerox machine—and the electric typewriter. The main innovation of the 1970s for notetaking was the cassette tape recorder. Beginning in 1977, Yale created machine-readable catalog records for newly received materials. Yale provided computer classes to the staff and by the early 1980s I was computer literate. In 1989, about 900,000 of these records became the foundation of the Orbis online catalog. Since the advent of the World Wide Web, initiating research in archives has become truly global. Information about a collection that includes important documentation on non-U.S. countries can be found by anyone with Internet access.
Spence: Are we now in a totally new or revolutionary situation?
Schiff: The first revolution in historical research occurred in 1962 with the publication of the first volume of the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). Compiled by the Library of Congress, it contains reproductions of catalog cards for nearly 7,300 manuscript collections in about 400 repositories, indexed by names and subjects. As the introduction states, "Scholars, particularly in the field of American history, have long been frustrated by the difficulties of locating specific manuscripts and even of identifying repositories that may contain source materials." Work on this project dates from the American Historical Association's Special Committee on Manuscripts formed in 1939. Work finally began in 1959 and was dependent on reports prepared by individual archivists on their collections. For the first time, scholars could readily find that an important group of papers of Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter, German diplomat and secretary of state, were at Yale; and that a search under the subject heading "Great Britain—Commerce—Turkey" led to the Company of Merchants of England Trading to the Levant Papers at Duke. Every year or two an additional volume was published, adding tens of thousands of entries and more and more compilations of indexes. In 1993, publication of the volumes ceased, and the NUCMC became available only online. It continues to be an important research tool.
Spence: And now?
Schiff: Technology has transformed nearly every aspect of life and work, and historical research is no exception. As a research archivist, I have observed and participated in many of the changes. Midway through the past four decades the computer began to be used by historians and archivists. It has revolutionized the research process, but to many computerized research is still a complex and frustrating process. Archivists frequently receive requests for the web site of a collection of papers that they assume has been digitized in its entirety and made available for instant access. For most archival repositories this is a dream that will remain unfulfilled for many years. The major goal of most archives is to provide accessibility not to the individual documents, but to the bibliographical descriptions, or finding aids, to their collections. Even this can be a long-term goal because a finding aid has to be compiled, and to do so, one must process and analyze the collection, which may be in a processing backlog with only a brief preliminary description of the entire collection made available.
Spence: Could you share with us a specific technical example of some project you saw through to completion yourself?
Schiff: For example, the T'ang Wu Papers, 1932–1975, were donated to the Manuscripts and Archives division of the Yale Library in 1985. A description entered in Orbis provides the information that T'ang Wu was a Chinese diplomat and ambassador, who had held positions at Chinese embassies in Egypt, Chile, Korea, Ecuador, and Liberia. T'ang also taught at the Chinese Military Academy (1932), was a professor of international law at Soochow University in Taiwan (1953), and was director of the Chinese Foreign Institute, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It further states that the papers consist of correspondence, diplomatic papers, writings, publications, and other documents detailing the political career of T'ang Wu. Still, finding this information can be a challenge for first time users, without the assistance of an archivist. One would first have to access the Yale Library web site, then go to Orbis, determine that manuscripts are included in the catalog and try to limit the search to manuscripts. After reaching the "Brief View" entry for the collection, one would then have to select "Long View" to see a description of its contents.
Spence: What can people like me, with no computer skills whatsoever, do if they feel completely baffled by these various sites?
Schiff: All of this trial-and-error can be eliminated if the researcher contacts an archivist in person, by phone, and now, most commonly, by e-mail. In fact, one of the most rewarding experiences for an archivist is to have an e-mail dialog with a distant researcher, providing instruction so the researcher can independently find all of the relevant sources entered in an online database. In addition, Manuscripts and Archives staff members, Diane Kaplan and William Massa with the assistance of others, have developed an online tutorial (at http://www.library.yale.edu/mssa/tutorial/tutorial.htm) for researchers that has become a model in the field, "Using Manuscripts and Archives: A Tutorial—An Instructional Tool for Finding Manuscripts and Archival Material at Yale and Beyond."
Spence: What are some of the basic things I should try and remember about finding aids, if for some reason I cannot reach that friendly archivist by mail or e-mail?
Schiff: The ArchivesUSA database provides information about collections in thousands of manuscript repositories in the United States. It combines three resources: the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), the Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States (DARMUS), and the National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the United States (NIDS). It is the only online source for NUCMC records prior to 1986. After determining that there is a finding aid in NIDS, researchers can consult the finding aid on the NIDS microfiche collection available in many libraries.
The RLG Union Catalog (RLIN) is a comprehensive database reflecting the collections of research, corporate, and public libraries, as well as museums, archives, and historical societies. Its resources are available to the public through EUREKA, an easy-to-use online gateway to a wide array of databases providing catalog records for books, journals, maps, sound recordings, musical scores, photograph, films, archives, and computer files.
OCLC FirstSearch is an online union catalog with millions of records for books and other materials held in academic, public, special, and national libraries around the world. Known as WorldCat, it provides catalog records for books, maps, sound recordings, musical scores, films, archives, and computer files held in research, corporate, and public libraries, as well as museums, archives, and historical societies.
Spence: What has given you the most fun or satisfaction in all this work and exploration?
Schiff: In addition to facilitating the research of others, I believe that one of the most rewarding aspects of an archivist's career is to directly utilize the archives for the education and enjoyment of the community. Since 1987, I have been the author of the Yale Alumni Magazine feature, "Old Yale," which carries illustrated articles on persons, athletics, and architecture. More opportunities arose in the 1990s beginning with the preparation of a temporary museum of Yale history mounted in a large tent for the World Special Olympics held in New Haven in 1995. Soon after that, we began to plan for the Yale Tercentennial, a yearlong celebration of Yale's founding in 1701. For publications and public events, every media type in the university archives was examined and exploited, including manuscripts, photographs, movies, recordings, and objects including the Old Yale Fence and a letter-opener made from a piece of Yale's oldest building taken into space by astronaut Joe Allen. I collaborated with a Michelin editor to write the Michelin Green Guide to Yale and New Haven, assisted in the preparation of a pictorial history and other Yale histories, and led one section of Gaddis Smith's popular DeVane Lecture course on Yale in the 20th century based on his extensive research in the archives.
Spence: And what comes next?
Schiff: Looking to the future, my next archival project is to develop and direct an oral history program for Yale University, one that will include documentation of the contributions of faculty, staff, and alumni, and to make it available on the Internet.
Spence: And as a broad agenda for the future?
Schiff: Improved exchange of information between historians and archivists. I have attended OAH or AHA sessions where archivists and curators present information on their holdings and research grants, but I do not recall any that have concentrated on making archival material generally more accessible to historians. As the databases and links between them are continually developing this should be an ongoing process, probably through an ad hoc committee. Updates could be published in Perspectives and workshops could be offered at annual meetings. Another area that has concerned me over the years is getting the word out on the availability of good underutilized collections. Databases do not always solve the problem as they indicate quantity more than quality.
—Jonathan Spence (Yale Univ.) is president of the AHA. Judith Schiff is chief research archivist in the Manuscripts and Archives Department of the Yale University Library.