October is American Archives Month, a month-long celebration of historic documents and records and the people that make them available for use. In Maryland & Historical Collections (MDHC), we know that people give our collections purpose. These people include the subjects represented in our collections, the students and researchers who use our materials in person and virtually, and the staff and volunteers who innovate ways of sharing Maryland history and culture with the public.
I recently spoke with two MDHC student assistants, Susannah Holliday and Matt LaRoche, to learn their thoughts on archives and the work they contribute to Special Collections and University Archives. Susannah is a graduate student in the Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) program, and Matt is a graduate student in the dual History and Library Science (HiLS) program. Working in MDHC gives them opportunities to apply what they learn in their classes to the everyday practices of a real archive. As the archivists of the future, Susannah and Matt offer great insight into the value of the historic record and the possibilities that exist when more people are involved in archives.
What inspires you to work in an archive?
Susannah Holliday: While completing my undergraduate degree in history, I knew I wanted to pursue an MLIS degree once I graduated. What I didn’t know was that studying history would push me to become interested in working in the archives side of libraries and information. Studying history showed me that I love the adventure of digging through documents and books, learning and experiencing history from first-hand perspectives. I knew I found a job where I could be excited to come to work every day.
I love that archives make history accessible and real. Some people may see archives as exclusive and only for professional scholars and researchers, but in reality they exist for anyone who wants to learn and discover! I’d love to help archives adopt a more publicly accessible image and inspire others to interact with all the fascinating materials that drew me to the field in the first place.
Matt LaRoche: I have been on the history career track since I was five years old and my father took me to Gettysburg, Antietam, and Colonial Williamsburg within the space of a summer. The rate of exposure never slowed down from there on. I think I am beyond saving at this point.
However, it was not until my undergraduate years that I first got exposed to archives and archival practices. As a junior at Gettysburg College, I accepted a Brian C. Pohanka Internship to Gettysburg College’s Special Collections and College Archives. There I had an epiphany that all the work that I had done up to that point as an aspiring historian had rested upon the labors of archivists, curators, and subject specialists that I had too rarely acknowledged. I realized that in order to become the historian I wished to be, I needed to understand the origins of the archival system that had saved (or discarded) everything that historical research depends upon. That meant getting hands-on in the archives.
What are you working on at the moment? How do you hope your work will help more people find and access Maryland history and culture?
SH: A couple projects come to mind as particularly interesting. One involves transcribing digitized documents from the Maryland Manuscripts collection. Transcribing documents means I read through the digitized item and type the handwritten text word-for-word into a digital copy. Sometimes this can be especially challenging since many of these documents were created at a time of inconsistent and unfamiliar spelling and grammar—and not to mention illegible handwriting. A majority of the documents that I have transcribed concern the experiences of enslaved individuals in Maryland, including deeds of manumission, or emancipation, and other legal documents. Hopefully these transcriptions will make these important documents more accessible and readable for users and will uncover new lines of inquiry for researchers studying the history of enslavement in Maryland.
ML: Lately, we at Maryland & Historical Collections have made a serious push to streamline our transcription practices and bring them into the 21st century. Unfortunately, GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) are not exactly a hot market for software developers. The process of screening through mishmashes of open-source and subscription-based software to find programs that at least “kind of” meet your archival needs can be both demoralizing and time-consuming. Trust me. Nonetheless, sometimes you do find a unicorn in the wilds of the internet!
Case in point: I am currently integrating Otter.ai, an AI-assisted transcription service that can listen to an audio file and produce a preliminary text transcript for editing, into an emerging Capital Centre Community Archives oral history project. As you can see, this first draft can be hilariously wrong; I seriously doubt Winston Churchill ever told a room full of dignitaries, “I am very bad indeed.” However, if you have ever done transcription from scratch then you know it is a long, exhausting process. Otter is quite the improvement by comparison!
Otter.ai’s ability to pre-read the audio file saves an immense amount of effort in typing out and formatting the obvious parts of an interview. And as you replay audio, the AI will indicate what it thinks it is hearing, which helps you untie aural knots as they appear. Once your transcript is correct, you can export it as a variety of file types–even subtitle files for videos. I am very excited to see how this new resource can help us maximize our output and minimize our migraines as we connect patrons to these important oral histories!
Lastly, what is one collection from Maryland & Historical Collections that you think everyone needs to know about? Why?
SH: The World’s Fair Ephemeral and Graphic Materials collection. This collection is interesting because it illustrates World’s Fairs—from the 1841 Fair championed by Prince Albert to the Shanghai Expo of 2010—through memorabilia, images, and everyday ephemera, like tickets and programs. Looking at the records of historic World’s Fairs is a great way to get a feel for what past generations found important and interesting. World’s Fairs had the opportunity to celebrate tradition and innovation at the same time and the materials in this collection reflect that through new technologies, like the stereoscope or vinyl records, and photographs of feats of engineering, like the Ferris Wheel and the Eiffel Tower. Even more, materials from historic World’s Fairs document how countries interacted on a global scale before we had the internet or more convenient international travel, two things that make the world so much smaller today.
ML: Easy—the Felix Agnus papers!
Since much of the reference work I do is with the Baltimore News American, a notable Baltimore newspaper that ran under various names from 1773 to 1986, I have a special affinity for collections associated with that paper. Felix Agnus looms large in the paper’s legacy, as he spent some 55 years of his life at the Baltimore News American, massively growing the paper’s reach and ultimately becoming its publisher and owner. However, it is the story of how he reached that point that most fascinates me.
Born in France in 1839, Agnus studied sculpture before getting swept up in the Franco-Austrian war of 1859. He then immigrated to the U.S., and began pursuing his art again—just in time for the Civil War to break out. Enlisting in the renowned Union “Duryée’s Zouaves” as a sergeant, Agnus began a stunning rise through the ranks. During the Battle of Big Bethel (one of the earliest battles of the war), he saved a superior officer’s life. He ended the war as a brevet Brigadier General and Inspector General of the South, where he was tasked with dismantling Confederate forts. Not bad for a sculptor!
Befitting the oddness of his life path (and his love of sculpture), after Agnus died in Baltimore in 1925, he had his grave covered by a replica of the famous centerpiece of the Adams Memorial in Washington, D.C. This shadowy, robed figure became widely known (and feared) as “Black Aggie,” treated in local folklore as a living statue that would terrorize anyone caught in the Druid Ridge cemetery after dark!
We hope this behind-the-scenes look at the people, projects, and materials in Maryland & Historical Collections inspires you to explore Special Collections and University Archives this American Archives Month!
Jacob Hopkins is a graduate student in the Master of Library and Information Science program at UMD and the Graduate Assistant for Reference, Outreach, and Engagement in Maryland & Historical Collections, Special Collections and University Archives.