Archival project

Archival Assignment


Earlier in this class, we read Moller-Wiede and Charmantier on how Linneaus stored notes and how it shaped his work. For this assignment, you are going to into the archives to find a historical collection of data.

Part I: Visit a dataset in the archives.

Find a pre-1914 source at a local archive or museum, and look at it.

Any of the documents we looked at in the Northeastern archives could serve as an example. You should choose a different document from any of your classmates; we may need to double up, but check with me before doing so.

What is data? That’s up to you. But be prepared to argue that something is data, rather than take it for granted–after all, any sort of evidence might be considered data, but you should strive to find something more structured than simply (say) all of a person’s letters. Some useful keywords on finding aids may be “ledger”, “account book”, “logbook”, “log”, “tables.”

Take care in choosing a source. Double entry bookkeepping is notoriously difficult to understand, for example: and handwriting from before about 1860 can be extremely difficult to read. And don’t be afraid to change your source in the archives for a better one.

Possible Archives

Since our class is small, each student can choose a document from a different archive. Some of the major archives within walking distance of Northeastern are:

  1. The Boston Public Library (Copley)
  2. The Massachusetts Historical Society (Fenway)
  3. The Countway Library for the History of Medicine (Harvard Medical School, Fenway)

Slightly farther afield, but still accessible without a car are:

  1. The Massachusetts State Archives (Dorchester)
  2. The National Archives and Records Administration. (Waltham)
  3. Houghton Library (Harvard University).

There are also a number of smaller archives for particular institutions. The Appalachian Mountain club keeps logbooks of everyone who has climbed a mountain in their network. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts keep their own archives. If there is an institution or subject area you’re interested in, we’ll see what we can find.

You’ll want to contact the archive before you arrive to make sure they have the material on site, and that it’s open to the public.

Archival policies on computers, photography, and so forth vary. If you have a digital camera, it’s a good idea to bring it; ask whether you can post any pictures of the documents online.

Part II. Class Presentation

We have set aside time for class presentations. Each presentation should take 8 minutes: if you go over, you may get cut off! You presentation should take three parts. Prepare notes, if you wish.

1. Description of the Archive (2 minutes, max)

Tell us about what archive you visited, and why it collected the things you looked at: if you saw things other than the data artifact you’re describing, this is the place to do it.

2. Description of the data

  1. Who created and stored the information inside. (Was it an individual? A clerk for a larger institution? You should feel free to speculate and admit what you don’t know).
  2. How is the data organized? What could you learn about the goals, preferences, and worldview of the people who created it from its organization? (Think about Stefan Müller-Wille’s description of Linneaus’ note-taking systems.)
  3. Are there idiosynracies in the way the data was collected? Unexpected features? Highlight these and describe why they might take the form they do.

3. Open questions.

  1. Tell us something, or several things, you don’t understand about the data. Is something arranged strangely? Is there an abbreviation you don’t know? Ideally these questions should be open enough that someone in the class might have an idea: indeed, you should have a few suggestions yourself.

Part III. Writeup.

After presenting, you should write up your project as 6-8 page paper. This will include your description of the artifact and any open questions you raised (hopefully slightly better developed than the presentation.

The page length does not include images. 6-8 pages should be about 1800 to 2500 words.

Your paper will include substantially the same material as your presentation, but should be structured more centrally around the single artifact you are discussing. Any additional items from the archive should be discussed in the context of that artifact; you’re.

The point of this is not historical argumentation, but close and detailed description that points to the limits of what you know about the artifact and what can be known about it. You will structure your paper in ways appropriate for the artifact.

You will also, as described above, offer a plan for digitization. This can simply be a separate section of the document.

Do not include a description of the archive, except in as actually effects the data you’re looking at.

Connection to secondary sources

Also, branch out beyond the source to provide some context based on published sources. (These should probably be book or journal articles, and probably not web pages. Use the library catalog, not Google, for this.)

Be sure to cite these sources properly. (See below).

Digitization Plan

Outline–but do not implement!–a plan for digitizing the data here into a form that could be used for further research. If you were going to store it in a digital spreadsheet or database, what sort of fields would you collect information on. Could you store the information in a spreadsheet or database? What sorts of questions could you answer by having the entire dataset digitized. (Assume that you have all the technical analysis capabilities needed to do so). How much time and effort would it take to create a digital version? What aspects of the document might be lost in the transition?

Turning in

Turn in your paper as a PDF over e-mail, by Friday October 17 at 5pm.


You should cite the works that you quote and refer to in the text in a consistent format. I recommend the Chicago documentary note format: with it, you give a full citation the first time you use a text, and smaller ones later. For short papers like this, you can omit the final bibliography. If you prefer to use a social-science author-date format with final bibliography, that is also acceptable.

If you are worried about formatting your citations correctly or keeping track of the sources you use, I strongly recommend the open-source citation software Zotero. This will automatically pull citations from the web, and you can drag and drop into a paper to get a formatted citation. Just be aware that online library sources may give you extraneous information, such as the language or a URL. Edit the fields in the library until drag-and-drop gets you good results.

Your primary source for this assignment will be the archival document(s) that you describe: be sure to cite it according to the standards of the archive. This will mean you’ve described it comprehensively enough so that a future researcher could easily find it.

You should also acknowledge any archivists or peers who help you to better understand the materials. Such acknowledgements would typically come either as a footnote to the first paragraph (for general assistance) or as a footnote to the specific place you received help. You don’t need to thank me!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>