Reflections from the CAM Archivist
Stephanie Buck, Librarian/ Archivist at Cape Ann Museum, 2004-2018
Archival artifacts, documents and photographs have, and continue to be, consistently used to support and enhance the stories being told in exhibitions of art and sculpture. Unfolding Histories: Cape Ann before 1900 is the first exhibition in the area that not only brings together treasures from the several historical institutions of Cape Ann, but makes the items themselves the focus of the stories, not mere adjuncts. This exhibition is a unique chance to highlight the amazing things these organizations have collected and to explore the invisible—all those papers hidden in boxes, tucked away on shelves in dark vaults, rarely seeing the light.
Given such a secretive existence it is not surprising that to many people the phrase “Archive Collection” means musty old books and brittle, yellowed paper, covered with strangely spelled words written in obscure handwriting, in faded ink. They are regarded as mere curiosities, of little interest or relevance to today. The truth is that though they may be confined in darkness, they are not quiet. They are not static relics of the past. Every letter to a friend, every account of debits and credits, every annotated book, every piece of paper, has been touched and read, argued and laughed over, by people just like us. Some of the stories are more significant than others, but they are all worth reading.
The proficiency of both the professional and volunteer guardians of our past has increased over the years. As historical institutions become more sophisticated, the people hired to care for the collections become more discriminating. Today’s archivist has to know when to say “No” as well as “Yes.” All archival objects are valuable, but not all are of equal value to all organizations. For instance, the 1830s logbook of a Gloucester vessel is of greater interest and importance to the Cape Ann Museum than to the Historical Society of the Arizona town it ended up in. In acknowledgment of this trend toward more focused collecting, there is a growing network of communication between archival groups, to share and exchange resources as each hones its mission and concentrates its collections.
This acceptance and culling of collections is supported by the devotion and skill brought to their maintenance by volunteers. The time and expertise needed to process, catalog and conserve each item is extensive, and most institutions would be unable to achieve or maintain the high standards of accessibility and preservation required without these faithful and knowledgeable volunteers.
In this increasingly technological age, it is just as important to maintain a physical archive as it was decades ago. A digital image of a unique document brings that document out of the hidden shadows and makes it available to everyone, everywhere. However, this universal accessibility would not be possible if someone had not perceived the importance of saving the document in the first place. Nor does it mean the original can be discarded once it has been digitized. Digitization is, by its very nature, constantly changing—and ultimately manipulable. Think of the number of photographs you have seen that have been “digitally enhanced.”
Archive collections are a record of past events and how people reacted to them. They are the Snapchat, the Instagram, the Twitter, of yesterday. Without them we would know very little of the way people learned, communicated, played or worked. Archives tell us not only about the past, where we came from, but where we are going, and maybe how best to get there.