Jumping the Desk

Jane Kamensky. Photo by Webb ChappellJane Kamensky. Photo by Webb Chappell
By Jane Kamensky, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director; Professor, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

As a historian, I’ve spent much of the past quarter-century haunting archives and solving puzzles. I confess that I found my first such foray, a hunt for records of the speech crimes of 17th-century New England women in Salem, Massachusetts, bewildering and terrifying by turns. (Ask my husband sometime about the rescue mission he launched from New Haven at 4 am.) As I learned the ropes, I came to love the kinks and quirks of special collections libraries, big and small, in villages and cities across the United States and the United Kingdom.

Among scholars, libraries develop distinct reputations. They can be clubby or cold, stingy or generous, grand or shabby, familial or bureaucratic, sometimes all at once. When I teach the art of archival research, I send students on scavenger hunts to various area repositories, asking them to report back to the class about the minutiae of their visits: What kinds of ID does a patron need? Are the plug strips plentiful and the lighting decent? Is photography allowed? Do patrons dress up to enter the reading room? One way and another, I’ve amassed a lot of tales from the vault.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that I’ve learned more about the work of archives and about how archives work in the scant weeks since I became the Pforzheimer Director of the Schlesinger Library than in the previous two decades combined. With patience seemingly as deep as their excellence, the library’s superb staff members are teaching me, day by day, how to see the world from the other side of the desk. As a researcher, looking in from the outside, I’ve always valued speed. How many boxes of letters or volumes of deeds can be brought to my station at once, and how quickly can they get there? But now, looking out from the inside, I’m humbled to see the myriad tiny processes that move a request from a patron’s computer to the research services desk, to the manuscript vault, and finally to a cart in the glorious, sunlit second-floor reading room for which the Schlesinger is justifiably renowned among the members of my tribe.

Those processes, however complex and careful, represent in some ways an end point. The library’s work ends where the scholar’s begins. In this issue of the newsletter, we peel back the curtain to reveal the birth of a collection—the Schlesinger’s largest acquisition ever—as it moves with all deliberate speed from hundreds of barely organized boxes in the offices of its compiler to what will eventually be a fully processed resource, indexed and sorted and described in ways that will allow it to inform the work of scholars—and through them, to transform our knowledge of American history for decades, even centuries, to come.

To sit behind the library desk is to find new partners in the work of scholarship. But facing outward from the Schlesinger also means thinking about connections around Radcliffe Yard, across the Harvard campus, and far beyond. Perhaps the truest measure of the excellence of the staff is its hunger to do even more, even better, for students, scholars, fellows, and faculty members alike. That drive has engaged us in searching conversations about how to make our collections more accessible, our exhibitions more riveting, and our acquisitions more diverse. I cannot imagine a job more important or fulfilling than the task of documenting women’s lives, especially amid the urgency and fervor surrounding questions of gender and sexuality in today’s America, all the while knowing that readers in distant places and times will use those materials—will need them badly—to solve the puzzles of their own place and time.

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