It’s National Archives Month! But you knew that, right? Chicago Collections and the Chicago Area Archivists have adopted the theme of “Hidden Stories” for Archives Month 2017, so we thought it would be appropriate to publish a series of blog entries highlighting Northwestern University Libraries’ very own array of Distinctive Collections units. For those who have never had a chance to tour or collaborate with these units, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at each of the mysterious entities whose treasures are hidden in plain sight.
The Northwestern University Archives holds a treasure trove of “hidden” stories. Our collecting scope is not broad—covering just Northwestern’s 166-year history—but it is very deep, reflecting every aspect of that history from the first trustees’ meeting in 1850 to yesterday’s Daily. And these seemingly local stories have national and international impact. But what we in the Archives actually do to collect and provide access to Northwestern’s stories is a hidden story within a story.
Tucked away in the basement of Deering, our archives might seem forbidding–or forgettable. But hiding our treasures is definitely not the goal–we’ll produce them at the drop of a reference inquiry. We collect all formats from paper documents to digital images; quantities from one flyer to 300 boxes of papers or records; material produced by or donated by any person or entity with a connection to NU, from students to organizations to administrators. With no purchasing budget, we rely on the kindness of our community and the notorious persuasiveness of our staff to acquire material (our collections now total about 30,000 cubic feet). Once obtained (often packed and moved by us–archivists must be able to lift 30 pounds), each acquisition is documented, reviewed for restrictions or conservation needs, rehoused, a processing plan determined, and a finding aid prepared so that researchers worldwide will know about the collection.
Meanwhile, our 4-person staff also answers thousands of reference inquiries per year (from patrons on- and off-site), gives talks and tours on NU history, provides instruction, collaborates on projects and exhibits with NUL and NU staff, and produces Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts to encourage interest in our holdings.
One “hidden” characteristic of our work is that we deal in context rather than content. Each collection reflects its original creator (person, organization), and we maintain its idiosyncratic individuality. Following the archival standards of provenance and original order, we don’t pick apart incoming collections and file the bits under separate subject headings. So when we get a research request we don’t pull “the” file relating to the topic. From our knowledge of our collections, we consider the context (time period, NU organizational structure, and likely sources), and retrieve relevant boxes from multiple collections.
We serve a wide audience of researchers, from the NU community–including students past, present, and future–to scholars worldwide, History Fair students, and the general public. We don’t know what questions, what new research directions, will arise. Our job is to help our audience mine our collections in pursuit of new knowledge revealed by the Northwestern stories “hidden” in the Archives, during Archives Month and all year long.