Archival Stories

If you are looking for stories, there may be no better place to find them than in the stacks of archival repositories. For archivists, the challenge is how to let these stories come into the public sphere, how to open them not just to scholars and other researchers but to make them more visible in society. Archivists, even the best, sometime seem not to realize the nature and power of the human stories they have responsibility for in their repositories. They seldom use the Web to describe these stories, and they often muffle the stories in lifeless finding aids where they seem more concerned with standards and other technical minutia.   And then they wonder about why there seems to be such a public misunderstanding about what they do and the mission they pursue.

Archivists need, as well, to become better listeners in order to find their audiences for the stories they administer and preserve. I am sure they can do so, but they need to start working on this in earnest. However, at least one archivist thinks we are doing better when it comes to the stories we have custody of; Anne Gilliland states, “Perhaps it might seem strange that it is stories, and not records, that have been the starting point for this research. I have been struck in many of the recent discussions about human rights and archives by how much ‘stories’ rather than, or as well as ‘records’ have been featured. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten in archival circles, with the exception of oral history archives, collecting or telling ‘stories’ would not have been considered by many to be the business that archivists were in” (Anne J. Gilliland, “Moving Past: Probing the Agency and Effect of Recordkeeping in Individual and Community Lives in Post-Conflict Croatia,” Archival Science 14 [2014]: 261. See also, David A. Wallace, Patricia Pasick, Zoe Berman, and Ella Weber, “Stories for Hope-Rwanda: A Psychological-Archival Collaboration to Promote Healing and Cultural Continuity Through Intergenerational Dialogue,” Archival Science 14 [2014]: 275-306).

We live in a world of stories. Alain de Botton writes, “We live in an era of unparalleled cultural richness. Every year humanity publishes some 90,000 films, 2 million books and 100,000 albums, and 95 million people visit a museum or art gallery” (Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual [New York: Pantheon Books, 2014], p. 235). Another way of saying this is to imagine all the stories driving these cultural products and activities. It is time for archivists to get more involved in storytelling. But in order to do so they need to learn how to craft and tell stories about themselves and their work.

While many archivists have been proficient writers, publishing in journals and conference proceedings, they have ignored what professional writers have advised about learning to write in order to gain larger audiences. Richard Rhodes, a master of creative nonfiction, connects writing to stories: “There are more ways to tell a story than there are stories to tell; a story is a map, and maps always simplify. You write a story whenever you put words on paper – even filling in a license form. A love letter or a business letter, a novel or a narrative, a short story or a news story, a screenplay, a song lyric, a family or scholarly history, a legal brief, a technical manual, a biography or an autobiography, a personal journal, a scientific paper, a photo caption, an essay, a poem, a sermon, advertising copy, schoolwork – all these and many others are forms of story you may wish to write” (How to Write: Advice and Reflections [New York: Quill, 1995], p. 1).

Reading broadly and deeply will help archivists learn how to discern opportunities for stories and how to write them. There are many other aids to learning how to present stories in effective ways. An interesting new addition is Randy Olson, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Olson, a marine biologist who gave up tenure and went to work in Hollywood to become a filmmaker, explains why he believes science suffers from a “narrative deficiency” (p. 8) and needs to learn “what makes for a good story” (p. 9). Olson considers the nature of narrative, “stories that connect a series of events over time, creating large-scale patterns” (p. 52). He describes numerous case studies of and methodologies for improving science communication, beating back “boredom” and “confusion,” the two primary ways communication breaks down (p. 113).

Probably every profession has worried about its ability to communicate to the public. This is especially true in the sciences. Cornelia Dean, Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), is an excellent example of trying to improve communication with the public, with considerable advice that is apropos in other fields. Dean, a science journalist, considers interacting with reporters, ways to present scientific research to the public, the necessity of knowing the audience and its capabilities, the nature of press releases, writing letters to editors and op-eds, testifying in court, and a host of other matters. Here is a representative example of the kind of basic advice offered: “When you start to write a science story, imagine how you would describe your favorite baseball game if your listener had never seen baseball played” (p. 133). Here is about the clearest advice you could ever get about writing a book: “it is not enough to produce a scholarly data dump. You must consider your readers and find a way to keep them engaged” (p. 162). Dean also provides a useful set of suggested readings.

The Olson and Dean books can be profitably read by archivists interested in reaching the public. I once had an essay nearly rejected by a leading archival journal because one of its reviewers thought it read like a piece from an airline magazine. Indeed, my intent was to write something that had a broader appeal. Clearly, our profession has a way to go in learning how to communicate beyond its own borders.



One thought on “Archival Stories

  1. Thanks for emphasizing the importance of story telling. I’m encouraged by the good use I see out there by GLAMs of Social Media platforms, I’m most familiar with the work of the National Archives and Records Administration, which uses Tumblr for Today’s Document. (Darren Cole does good work on that.) Some of the stories from the records shared on Facebook and at the agency’s blogs also effectively convey the range of holdings and why records have value. Some also provide insights into how the agency does its work. Many other GLAMs also use social tools to share stories from their holdings. Twitter is a good channel for giving these a signal boost. Glad to see you blogging again, Happy Holidays!


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