Between Passion and Reason: On Researching in the Archives

As our loyal readers know, in January 2017 we mounted an exhibit, Mapping the Territory: Maps and Papers from the Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory. This exhibit is our most recent project to explore and showcase the RASRL Collection and encourage others to use this unique resource.   As it turns out, the exhibit also has provided an unanticipated opportunity for us: to reflect on the challenges in researching archival materials.

The Līhu‘e Map

This map, roughly three feet by four feet, is on exhibit at Moir. Co-curator, Lori Pierce, and I selected this map for three reasons. (1) We wanted Kaua‘i to be represented in Moir (the online component features another Kaua‘i community.  (2) The map is clear and neatly rendered. (3) It is undated and without the name of the mapmaker.

We believed that the Līhu‘e map would provide an excellent example of unprocessed archival material around which we could pose some questions to visitors of the exhibit, the first and most important being “How would you go about determining a date for this map?” (We did contact the Kauai Historical Society to see what they could tell us, but that is another story.) As part of our planning and design process, we visited several exhibits and read up on museum studies basics. We decided we wanted to offer an exhibit that would engage visitors.

At some point we realized that our exhibit would not have an interactive element: our budget was limited, the exhibit space was small and somewhat cramped, and we curators wouldn’t regularly be on hand to gather and share visitors’ comments. (We had learned this about exhibits with interactive components:  requesting comments from visitors and then doing nothing with them is pointless.)

Once we abandoned having interactive elements, one lonely map with no context seemed unacceptable. All other maps in the exhibit had provided at least a breadcrumb or two that led us to their historical contexts. Certainly, if I (Chris) looked a little harder, I told myself, I could tether this free-floating document.

I consulted a list of RASRL community papers we had compiled from our research and found a paper about Līhu‘e that referenced a map written in the 1930s, a period that has an abundance of community studies. There was no map with the paper, but it’s not unusual to encounter a paper that refers to and describes a map that isn’t attached. An oversized one, like the Līhu‘e map, would be filed in a special map drawer – in this case, Drawer 2, #45. I skimmed (the operative word here) the paper, had a copy made and a caption prepared for the map.

Sometime after the exhibit opened, I went back to Ishii’s paper to write a post to include in the online portion of the exhibit.  Ishii seemed to describe the Līhu‘e map I had before me: the camp names – Kilipaki, Nakano, Banana were there, the locations of the schools and businesses were noted. But then on page three, I saw this: “The houses marked yellow are residence homes [sic] of the whites (haoles) [,] the rich of the community.” The Līhu‘e map, rendered in black and white, uses symbols not colors to denote ethnicity.

Clearly, I had been wrong to attribute the map to Dean Y. Ishii.

From Lind’s An Island Community

The desire to get things settled with this map overwhelmed my misgivings.  I’ve looked at hundreds of maps made by RASRL writers, but how many maps have the standardized look of this one?  Isn’t this map in the same style that Andrew Lind uses in An Island Community? Why does this map seem, for lack of a better term, impersonal?  (See a Community Study of Auld and Peterson Lanes in Palama for a stunning example of what I mean by “personal.”)

For a novice researcher to even embark on an examination that has any hope of success, she would need to start with material that, at the very least, included the date of its creation and the name of its creator. But for a seasoned researcher, which I consider myself to be, to start with nothing but the object itself was a thrilling challenge. But it can turn out to be a foolish endeavor, especially if the researcher feels so certain about being successful that she doesn’t slow down.

In The Allure of the Archives, Arlette Farge uses the metaphor of combing through archives as a way to emphasize the deliberateness of this work:  “One cannot overstate how slow work in the archives is, and how this slowness of hands and thought can be the source of creativity. But more than inspirational, it is inescapable” (pp. 55-56).

Farge also point outs that doing archival research is more than just cognitive work:

… we know that for a document to take on meaning it must be questioned pointedly. The decision to write history from the archives comes from somewhere between passion and reason. … They do not become one and the same, but they eventually work side by side, to the point that you are no longer conscious of the necessary distinction between them (pp. 14-15).

The archives will always urge us to solve its mysteries, which is all the more reason to proceed with caution and a good deal of humility.  We will need to in order to get things right.

Please visit our companion website Local Citing where we feature several community studies form the RASRL Collection in the Mapping the Territory exhibit.

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