Ask an Archivist: The Questions We Ask Ourselves

This year October 5th is “Ask An Archivist” Day!  For us, Ask an Archivist Day usually means fielding questions from the public about what life in an archive is like.

However, this week a group of student archivists working at the University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives are taking this time to start a conversation about the nature of archives more broadly. This “Ask An Archivist” Day, they are asking: “Can I break the archive?”


In the 2009 article published in Archival Science, Jeannette Bastian concludes that, “a cultural expression has no end; it is always becoming something else.” In one sense, this is intuitive: there is “culture” all around us and it is constantly evolving. This ceaseless evolution is exactly what can make  the dinner table at Thanksgiving so uncomfortable. After all, having so many generations in one place is bound to cause friction. But, it’s not just “culture” that’s evolving. It is all the things that culture entails. The objects, documents, and evidence of culture–typically the stuff of archives–is itself bound to the constant flux of relationships and activities that frame and contextualize their existence. We tend to think of archives as evidence of a distant past that are static. Safe in their archival boxes, nothing can harm or change the objects that have been chosen to represent the past.

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Literary Special Collections

Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library is home to a wide array rare and unique literary collections. From personal papers of authors and poets to early printed works, our collections cross a variety of subjects and time periods in the literary world.

Archival Collections

Below are some highlights from our archival literary collections in Hornbake Library:

  • Katherine Anne Porter papers
    • Personal papers of American author Katheriane Anne Porter (1890-1980), best known for her short stories and novel Ship of Fools (1962).
  • Djuna Barnes papers
    • Personal papers of avant-garde American writer and artist Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), best known for her novel Nightwood (1936).
  • Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven papers
    • Personal papers of avant-garde artist and poet Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927). She is associated with Djuna Barnes and the Dada movement.
  • Ernest Hemingway collection
    • A large portion of the collection consists of serials that include stories and nonfiction written by and about Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). It also includes some original correspondence to and from Hemingway. In addition, there are manuscripts and proofs of Hemingway’s work and biographies of Hemingway.
  • Literary First Appearances
    • Periodicals containing the “first appearance,” or first public dissemination, of many noteworthy 20th century literary works.
  • French Pamphlet Collection
    • Approximately 12,000 pieces dating from 1620 to 1966, covering many key episodes in the history of France. The largest part of the collection is made up of 7000 pamphlets from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, 1788-1815.
  • African American Pamphlet Collection
    • 20th century materials on African, African-American, and Caribbean culture and literature. The collection spans the years 1905-1979, although the majority of the pamphlets date from the 1960s and 1970s.

Subject Guides

Rare Book Collections

Our rare book collections contain books printed from the 16th century to modern times. Most are searchable in the online catalog. Below are some highlights from the collection:

  • German Expressionism collection
    • Contains serials and books that reflect German Expressionism, a culural, literary, and artistic movement that began in Germany prior to the First World War.
  • William Morris collection
    • Works by 19th century British author, socialist, designer and founder of the Kelmscott Press, William Morris (1834-1896).
  • Eikon Basilike
    • Guide to the Eikon Basilike and related materials held by Special Collections and University Archives

Want to learn more? Explore our literary special collections online or visit the Maryland Room to speak to a librarian. You can also contact us via email.

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter for updates and images from our collections.

New Exhibit: Presidential Campaigns – Through the Candidates’ Eyes

Think the current presidential election campaign has been unusual?  The new exhibit in the Maryland Room of Hornbake Library explores some of the strange techniques that presidential candidates have used to appeal to voters across much of American history. Candidates (or their spokespeople) have spread serious ideas and spurious notions; built interest from specific demographics of people; sought the support of parties and coalitions of parties; and deployed advertising to increase public visibility and name recognition.

The documents and artifacts in this exhibit date from the 1830s to the 1980s, and are drawn from a variety of collections available for research in the Maryland Room. These include the Spiro T. Agnew papers, the James Bruce papers, the Joseph Tydings papers, the archives of the National Organization for Women (Maryland Chapter), the Rare Books collection, and the Marylandia collection.

Items of particular interest, perhaps, are the autograph letter signed by Senator John F. Kennedy after his nomination by the Democratic Party in 1960, and two official White House photographs, which separately depict Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and President Ronald Reagan. But, then again, there’s the 1932 poster for Franklin D. Roosevelt which promoted “Beer Instead of Taxes.”

Visit these and more in the Maryland Room through the end of October.

Underground Media Collections on Display in the Performing Arts Library

In honor of the exhibit “Heavy Metal Parking Lot: The 30-Year Journey of a Cult Film Sensation”, now on display in the Gallery of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library, Special Collections is highlighting the expansion of our materials related to local, DIY and underground media. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Maryland/D.C. area gave rise to a number of unique radio, film and music scenes that were largely documented through the DIY efforts of their participants, and the University of Maryland is playing an important role in preserving their histories. The photos, flyers, articles, fanzines, and sound and video recordings that survive in these collections show how local arts communities thrived through the creativity of the people they inspired.

Located across from the circulation desk in the Performing Arts Library, two large display cases showcase items from Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) and Special Collections in the Performing Arts (SCPA). The SCUA case includes highlights from the WMUC Collection, and the recently acquired Jeff Krulik Collection, and the SCPA case includes highlights from the John Davis Photograph and Poster Collection, the D.C. Punk and Fanzine Collection, the Sharon Cheslow Punk Flyers Collection and the Jason Farrell Collection.


AFL-CIO Artifact Project: Summer 2016

By Margot Willis, Labor Collections Volunteer

In 2013, the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) donated the entire holdings of the George Meany Memorial Archives to the Special Collections and University Archives Department of University of Maryland Libraries. This collection contains the most important documentation of the history of America’s largest federation of labor unions, founded in 1955. Comprising over 20,000 linear shelf feet of a wide variety material, including documents, photographs, audiovisual materials and artifacts, it represents the single largest donation of archival material to the University to date.

Until this summer, the artifacts portion of the AFL-CIO collection had gone almost entirely untouched by university archival staff due to other higher priorities.  Packed away in the same bubble wrap and cardboard boxes in which they were transferred to the University three years ago, the AFL-CIO artifacts sat in out-of-the-way corners of Hornbake Library.

Back in April, when I first spoke with University of Maryland Labor Archivists Jen Eidson and Ben Blake about a possible volunteer project over the summer, I mentioned that I have an interest in museum studies, and would like to learn more about the care and organization of artifacts in an archive. Because they needed immediate help in verifying identifications and locations of AFL-CIO artifacts in anticipation of an upcoming exhibit and due to the fact I was willing to work for free, they granted my wish and set me to work.

I worked wherever there were boxes, which happened to be in the very bottom and the very top floors of Hornbake library. Oftentimes, the spaces I worked in were very small, and the boxes very large.

Originally, the plan was for me to go through the boxes, locate each object in the original Meany Archives inventory of over 2500 records and enter the object’s new location in Hornbake. However, after about five minutes on the job, it became clear that the project would be a bit more complicated than that. There were items in the boxes that were not on the spreadsheet. There were items whose accession numbers appeared on the spreadsheet but whose descriptions did not match the items. There were boxes of dozens of items inside other boxes that had not been recorded as being there. The original inventory indicated that some boxes contained certain items, which, upon further examination, were not there at all. In other cases, boxes should have had only one object, but ended up containing six.

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Frederick Douglass Exhibit Coming Soon to Hornbake Library

The new exhibit Frederick Douglass & Wye House: Archaeology and African American Culture in Maryland will be opening soon in the Maryland Room exhibit gallery in Hornbake Library.

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Thousands of African and African American families were enslaved in Maryland for almost 250 years. Little evidence of their daily lives was preserved which leaves many questions about how they created a vital and distinct culture.

The University of Maryland seeks to answer questions about the origins of the nation including the contributions of African Americans. In the Department of Anthropology, archaeologists investigate Maryland’s landscapes to collect historical evidence and reveal new knowledge about the African American experience. At Wye House plantation, researchers utilized the words and work of Frederick Douglass to help answer the questions of today’s descendants of enslaved people.

By understanding past relationships to the natural environment and religions, University of Maryland archaeologists are discovering how African and European traditions creatively merged over four centuries to form a unique Maryland culture.

Visit Hornbake Library September 2016-July 2017 to explore this fascinating exhibit and learn more about the life and times of Frederick Douglass.

Army ROTC at UMD: 100 Years of Leadership

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Army ROTC, the University Archives, in collaboration with the Terrapin Battalion, present an exhibit tracing the history of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) on campus.

On June 3, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act, creating the Army ROTC. Instruction in Military Science at the University of Maryland (UMD) began at least as early as 1868, but the introduction of ROTC saw the birth of a program that produced Army officers during both World Wars. Army ROTC returned to UMD in 2003, 53 years after its departure in 1950, and resumed its place in the campus community. Today, the battalion is 100 cadets strong.IMG_0464.JPG

These objects and documents can only briefly testify to Army ROTC’s impact over the past 100 years by highlighting leadership development courses, collegiate teams, campus events, and notable alumni like Ralph Davis, the ROTC cadet who wrote the UMD fight song.

Visit the exhibit in Hornbake Library’s Maryland Room throughout the month of August. Learn more about the Army ROTC at the University of Maryland by visiting