Welcome to the Jumble: Finding the Needles in the Haystack of a Small Historical Society’s Large Collection
By Charlotte Murtishaw, Department of History, UMass Amherst
The Historical Society of Greenfield is housed in a huge old Italianate, one of those beautiful red-brick Second-Empire Victorians with turrets and gables and an expansive floorplan which belies its origins as a family’s home. My research companion Carol Aleman (a member of the Society’s board, and a dedicated independent scholar) and I took to referring to the Society as a historian’s candy shop, nearly every inch of its three floors stuffed with vintage advertisements, porcelain dining services, ornate portraits, smartly-dressed mannequins, children’s toys, and even a few mysterious slabs of rock. The first floor serves a free public museum, with storage crowding the remaining floors. In addition to the objects, several rooms are lined with shelves cradling a miscellany of papers — books, periodicals, scrapbooks, journals, yearbooks, newsletters, files, boxes, you name it.
The collections are admirably navigable for a mish-mosh assortment of material that has accumulated since the Society’s 1907 founding, a legibility arising from many hours of members’ hard work. It is also understandable that the storage spaces of a volunteer-powered historical society look different from those of a more resourced institution. There are no digital databases or readily available finding aids, and institutional knowledge is spread throughout the corps of members. For this project, we were going in without much of a map, aware that lurking somewhere in this occasionally haunted-seeming house of hoarding were clues to our project. Who could tell what filing cabinet or untitled manila folder might prove valuable?
In getting started, our greatest asset was external: Carol had already conducted several years of research on the topic, and her dives into vital records and census data as well as information-sharing among local Black families who were conducting their own genealogical investigations had accrued glimpses – names and details which might help us uncover more.
There are a few different ways we could have tackled this, but we wanted a birds-eye view first and foremost, afraid that a randomized approach would not only be an inefficient use of time but also make it next to impossible to keep track of what had been examined, especially with several volunteers in the mix. So first we inventoried, taking turns sitting on the floor and rifling through filing cabinets, calling out the contents to the notetaker and trying to not get too distracted (with moderate success). What was supposed to be a day’s task took over a month, given limited access to the building, but at least then we knew what was there. Though preparatory work, finishing our inventory still had the celebratory feeling of finishing a marathon.
Because Carol’s research had already identified most of what was findable through typical vital statistics and the usual legal sources (such as the census, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates), we had a double challenge: Guessing what of this crop might be promising to look into further with all of the low-hanging fruit already juiced. This was exciting work, tinged with mystery and promise, and full of hours spent skimming with little to show for it. At the same time, one of the reasons it was intriguing is because legal, business, and government records not only categorically overlooked and excluded people of color but tended to drain those same people of all humanity or personality where they did appear. Carol and I both agreed we were most curious about who these names had been. What were their day-to-day lives like? their hobbies? their families? their journeys and trials? None of this is communicated by a birth and death date, or even a marriage record or property deed, even if those can be suggestive on their own or collaged together. The ultimate question became: Where, in all these records, could we truly find hints to not only the existence of people hidden from mainstream history, but those people’s realities as well?
Sermons, I had hoped, may contain more anecdotal evidence, but quickly I learned how out-of-favor the casual, personal style of contemporary preaching was in the nineteenth century. Relevant content in newspapers tended toward death notices, the same type of vital statistics we had already exhausted; and otherwise, they largely overlooked the stories of people of color outside of tragic or criminal stories written with obvious bias. I was disheartened to find that the correspondence and journals of prominent white employers of Black servants almost never referenced them, despite what must have been daily interactions. Meeting records and newspaper editorials from the local abolitionist societies talked about the problem of enslavement generally, but very rarely named or appeared to interact with racism and enslavement on-the-ground in their community, not to mention the people most affected by their cause. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet here, that I know of. Systemic exclusion, as I already knew, cannot be totally thwarted through equally systemic methods.
We spent time sketching out some sort of sense to the rich, awesome jumble in front of us – not in vain! – but it was only so helpful. Our finds still arrived at random intervals more than via any sort of calculations about probable sources. One day Carol came across a photo of Harry Hall in a high school theater program. Harry, Carol knew, had been a prominent bandleader regionally in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until that page—a young Harry smiling among his peers—that she found out he had also played the drums.
Tucked into a folder labeled ENTERTAINMENT was a newspaper clipping about a shuttered secondary school which would have been easy to dismiss after a quick glance. Still, skimming the second page I found reference to Ben Putnam (the son of John Putnam, a local barber and fiddler often credited with the popularity of contra dance in New England). Unlike government records, this fragment furnished a nickname—Ben Put—and described his reputation as a champion runner and role as an assistant trainer at the gym which replaced the school. With that information, we were able to broaden our searches in digital databases and find more information on his athletic accomplishments—including his membership on Greenfield’s world-champion firehose team.
By letting go of the wish (or perhaps fantasy) that there would be signposts indicating exactly where to look, we were able to find more and deeper information. Along the way, we stumbled into drawers and files we probably wouldn’t have touched otherwise. At the risk of over-intellectualizing, there’s something of Guy Debord’s dérive (drift): an experimental behavior of exploration which, by consciously rejecting the suggestive paths of least resistance and dead-ends which form the built environment, can inspire new perspective and understandings.i Even when we weren’t directly finding information on our topics, everything “irrelevant” gave us a better sense of the culture of the town and times, good context to inform our work. As I suggested to Carol, sometimes, apparent neglect may have saved material past generations of archivists may have thrown out, and while there many ways to go about finding a needle in a haystack, there’s also a reason plunging a hand in has more vivid and immediate results than sorting. I don’t want to sound too optimistic about a body of records clearly shaped by an overemphasis on specific subjects – mainly people of manifold privilege. Still, when we picked it up and shook, shifting rapidly between hyper-organization and the dérive, a few leads fluttered out.
In a sense, our freeflowing approach, though it may seem haphazard, proved the only genuine way to go about this work; as many scholars have observed, traditional archives do a poor job of holding and honoring the lives of marginalized people. Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s seminal book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) has inspired much writing about the silences or “gaps” in archives, and the ways the absence itself must be read as historical evidence; it feels important too, per historian Saidiya Hartman, to hold on to the ways in which marginalized people of color have resisted scrutiny, definition, and official recording.ii Part of my research ethic, even as I scrounged, had to include respecting the silences emitted by what was intentionally hidden—pieces of the past never intended to be visible to me—both redactions born of personal privacy and the sorts of concealments that kept endangered people safe.
And simultaneously, given the obfuscation, re-writing, and intentional obliteration of Black lives and memory over the course of America’s history, recovery of primary sources is vital. This sort of research is difficult, requiring enduring patience, faith in the dark, and preparation for the troubling stories that will turn up. The lack of a clear how-to also means researchers should be prepared to try different approaches and adjust their expectations until they find the right balance. For all of these reasons, I was so grateful to spend all that time at 43 Church Street with Carol, who was so open to discussing both practical tactics and the much deeper currents of history and humanity at play. At the end of the day, while I hope this explanation of how our summer unfolded is helpful, the most important advice I have is to find the right research companion, pack a lunch, and go exploring.