Publication Date

August 17, 2015



In anticipation of a new academic year, we solicited reflections from three early-career historians on their first years in new positions. Today,  talks about his first year as a special-collections curator.

“Challenge and opportunity.” In the fall of 2013, I found myself writing this phrase in e-mails to colleagues and friends. I had just left a teaching position to accept a new role as a special-collections curator. As the congratulations came in, the old cliché seemed to express precisely my feelings at the prospect. “Thank you so much!” I typed in one note to a former professor. “It is really exciting. I’m looking forward to this new challenge and opportunity.”

The challenges were obvious and daunting: navigate the workings of a complex institution, acquaint myself with the customs and concerns of librarianship, and become intimately familiar with a collection that featured half a million books and 20 miles or so of unique archival materials. Though I’d be immersed in a world of research, progress on my own book project would now be relegated to mornings, nights, and weekends.

But, oh, the opportunities. For a New York City historian the prospect of unfettered access to Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library—home to some of the most significant records of Gotham’s past—was tantalizing indeed. As curator, my brief would be to augment these collections, support research and teaching, and coordinate public programming and outreach. Yet these facets of the job description hardly did justice to a year that would find me in a variety of roles, including conference organizer, exhibition curator, curriculum planner, website designer, archivist, blogger, reference consultant, and digital publisher.

As a researcher and author of two books, I had visited numerous reading rooms. Camera and laptop—or, on occasion, pencil—in hand, I had captured my required data before moving on to the next location. As a teacher, I had frequently utilized interesting archival discoveries to illustrate a lecture, or as material for in-class discussion. But never before had I enjoyed the possibility of exploring the many and various collections of an entire repository, getting a sense of the institutional history that had brought the materials together, and luxuriating in the prospect of examining records that did not relate directly to my focused specialization. Highlights from my first year included sustained explorations into the papers of a truly eclectic set of subjects, ranging from John Jay to Lenny Bruce, Herbert Marcuse to Marshall Berman, Emma Goldman to Frances Perkins.

The curators at the library do an enormous amount of teaching. In the past year, I have interacted with dozens of seminars and classes, from eighth graders to lifelong learners, and to each of these groups I have tried to impart a keener sense of the centrality of the archival record to our understanding of history. The treasures at Columbia University were selected from a vast set of choices. Much more was lost than has been preserved. This has not been a random process. The documents saved were created by the powerful, wealthy, and famous. Think of what this means, I tell students, for scholars today who want to study the lives of everyday people in the past. I ask them to think ahead and imagine what records future historians might require in order to offer a more balanced vision of our society today.

If hundreds of students have passed through our classrooms, the potential exists for the first time to bring the rarified atmosphere of the archives to the world at large. With millions of historical documents now available online, teachers have more access than ever to the unique contents of special-collections repositories. This will bring numerous benefits. Students who are unlikely ever to visit an archive in person now have a chance to experience authentic historical learning via the Internet. But enhanced discoverability has its costs, too. One-click, full-text searching erases the messiness, contingency, and serendipity of hands-on research. The traditional experience of sitting in a reading room and leafing page by page through an archival document box cannot be fully replicated on the web. Historians should actively guide this process, ensuring that new technologies are integrated with the discipline’s commitment to critical scholarship

For all these reasons, this is an inspiring and important moment. After just a short time on the job I feel that I might try to serve as an advocate for archival research—not just for its value to individual scholarly projects, but also as a political endeavor in its own right. At the beginning of this year my main concerns focused on the personal and professional challenges and opportunities that this new position would bring to me. Now, I have come to appreciate the broader possibilities and pitfalls facing the profession as a whole.

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is Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. He is the author of two books: More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy (Bloomsbury, 2014) and A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience (New Press, 2004).He is currently working on Boomtown, an environmental and labor history of early 20th-century gold mining(Harvard Univ. Press, expected 2017).

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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