Making Sense of Someone’s Something Else

Written by Sean Reichard, 1st year

Earlier this month I started reading Deborah Solomon’s “Utopia Parkway”, an illuminating biography about the artist Joseph Cornell. The title refers to the street in Queens where Cornell lived most of his life, but it also, in Solomon’s telling, refers to the path Cornell followed in his artistic wanderings.

As an artist, Cornell was a man of association, fashioning shadow boxes and collages from materials gleaned from the array of used bookstores and antique shops that constitute, for people like Cornell, a sort of floating world. He also made experimental films—taking existing film and cutting it up before pasting it back together, decontextualizing the frames into a series of new, strange aperçus.41642_1184x1720-1

“Rose Hobart” stills

He was controversial in this last regard. The screening of Cornell’s first film, “Rose Hobart” (a “cut-up” of a forgotten 1931 silent film starring the eponymous Hobart), in New York in 1936, for instance, caused a major stir in the surrealist art scene.  Among the audience of that first screening was Salvador Dalí who, in a rage, knocked over the projector halfway through the movie, shrieking “Salaud!” at an aghast Cornell. Purportedly, Dalí later accused him of oneiric larceny: “Joseph Cornell, you are a plagiarist of my unconscious mind!”  The film wasn’t shown again until the 1960s, presumably when Dalí was out of the country.

Celestial Navigation

Ostensibly an American Surrealist, Cornell defied categorization. He didn’t even think of himself as much of an artist. He didn’t paint, for instance. He didn’t have a glamorous life globetrotting and hobnobbing like other famous artists of the time, although he did cultivate friendships with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, among others. He didn’t have passionate liaisons or go on benders. He was a Christian Scientist. He lived with his mother and his brother Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy; Cornell spent a good deal of time taking care of the latter and butting heads with the former.

Cornell never left the United States. He hardly left New York. His art, however, traveled far beyond the States—and far beyond real life, in the realm of dreams and the crosscurrents of “high” and “low” cultures.

His art has found a home on the web, for instance, catalogued through the online portals of major and minor museums and fan sites. And, likely to his own shock, if he had lived to see it, Cornell the man has found a home too.

His personal papers, held by the Archives of American Art, were digitized in 2005 and 2009. It was a momentous undertaking: the collection measures 24.8 linear feet and all of it has been scanned, amounting to 38,463 images. The finding aid is dizzying. You would almost prefer understanding it via shadow box than pdf or printout!

envelope with leaves 1949
Letter with Leaves

The breadth of materials alone is remarkable—correspondence, books, personal diaries, source materials, photographs, ephemera—and includes the papers of Cornell’s sister Betty Benton. Further, the image that introduces you to the Cornell papers is apt: an envelope from the New York Public Library Circulation Department, alongside an array of leaves and feather Cornell collected in 1949.  Perhaps in homage to the artist, the objects seem arranged for more than documentation purposes.

I say Cornell has found a home online not so much because he’s an undervalued artist, but because his art is so well suited to the medium. It’s also well suited to the archive. In a culture where we readily recontextualize content for our own purposes (I’m thinking here of memes, but there are other examples), and a profession like archiving where the strictures have started to bend from mounting, multifarious pressures—in a profession that has always felt multifarious pressures—Cornell’s art shines as an analog example artful recontextualization and, in some ways, as an of repurposing.

Would it be cheap to call archiving a form of repurposing? Maybe, especially if we consider materials to have only one use. But they don’t. The archive exists because items have a life beyond their use, beyond their original context, however much the institution is based on preserving that original order.

Cornell’s subjects had lives before they reached his boxes, before they felt the brush of his collating glue; the same way the items that arrive for appraisal had lives. An archivist does not so radically alter objects the way Cornell did, but like the artist, an archivist makes sense out of someone’s something else. It’s a lesson well worth heeding and a marvelous example to ruminate on.

P.S. If you ever have the time, the Chazen Museum of Art has a few of Cornell’s works on display. They’re on the third floor next to the Max Ernst and René Magrittes.

Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.


Great Grandma’s Rocking Chair is Stored in the Men’s Bathroom?!?

By Melanie Jones, 1st Year

Storage space, one of the biggest headaches for an archivist, presents numerous challenges daily, especially for small historical societies. There is only so much room to store the history of the community. It can be hard to turn something away and so it’s easier to just accept it and let the next generation deal with it, when it’s finally found in the backlog of material. This was my experience as a volunteer for years at my local historical society. Those with a passion for history don’t want to see anything lost to time or thrown out. The historical society seems a perfect place to donate all that has been collecting dust in your attic, because it’s a historical society, so surely, they want it. After 40 years of community members essentially emptying their attics and basements of items pertaining to the history of the community and its significant people, places and events, the historical society had more than what they knew to do with. The small building had been filling up for years; and now, with nowhere else to store anything and with no room in the budget to expand the building, the men’s bathroom was the last resort.

To some, it seems a badge of honor, thinking our community has so much local memorabilia that we have run out of storage space for it all. Yet, I cringe every time I hear someone discussing it or see a patron come in, only to be told that the information they seek can be located in the men’s bathroom. Did we really need to keep, accession, catalog, and store those scrapbooks with no indication of donor, who was in the photographs or when, where or who took the photo? Or was any set of ‘cute’ salt and pepper shakers someone wanted to drop off of historical value to the community? The answer is no. Rather an appraisal policy is needed.

Out of Service: Now Utilized for Preservation of Local History

Change can be slow to come, and this shortage of space underscores the need to develop a policy delineating to the community the society’s mission, what sort of items will be accepted and what, despite whatever value it may have, is outside of the historical society’s scope of collection. No one wants to be told their great grandma’s rocking chair is being stored in the men’s bathroom. This chair has incredible value to the donor and family as well as to the history of the community at large, for it was handmade by a well-known community member from locally sourced lumber, yet is being preserved in a bathroom. Not everything can be saved, unfortunately, and that is where appraisal and collection policies help with the tough decisions of determining what will have future value and what will not. So, before you donate anything to your local historical society, find out their collection policies and ensure your relative’s beloved items will not become the newest feature of the men’s bathroom.

Image credit:

Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.

From the Archives – “Reconstructing Origins”

Cat graduated from the UW-Madison iSchool in May of 2017. She lives in California and is the User Engagement and Outreach Librarian at Stanislaus State. Day-to-day, she collaborates with faculty on library-centered curriculum, plans outreach events, teaches library instruction sessions to students, drinks a lot of coffee while writing grant apps, and takes many deep breaths while driving on Highway 99.

Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog

by Cat Hannula, 2nd Year

…I will look humbly at the past and say despite them all: it really happened, and we really can, if we are very scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out how it happened and reach some tenable though always less than final conclusion about what it all meant…

-Richard Evans, In Defense of History


(Picture of an apartment very similar to my old attic apartment. The buildings were so close to each other, my neighbor in the building next door and I would wave and have short conversations with each other.)

In the spring of 2015, I put the finishing touches on my master’s thesis in history–to the relief of everyone, including myself, my parents, my college roommate, my other friends, my landlady, and what seemed like my entire neighborhood in Seoul, all of whom were probably sick of hearing about it. It felt like the…

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Archival Reference and the Passerby

Written by Jesse Hocking, first year

Working in an archives can be an awesome, fulfilling experience, but like many in the field, I worry about outreach. How many undergraduates on any campus know where (or what) their nearest archives is?

Over the years of working the Reference Desk at the Special Collections Libraries at the University of Georgia, I always enjoyed being able to introduce all new archival concepts to folks who may have never visited an archives or manuscript repository in-person. I got a lot of fun questions, and I thought I might share a few of the recurring ones:

“What’s the rarest book you have?”

While we have many books that are hard to find, I would say you can’t get rarer than unique, and we’ve got lots of unique materials!

“Do you wear white gloves?”

By far the most common question I’ve been asked. While it depends on the institution, we didn’t wear gloves for most of our processing, and it’s definitely too hard to type up a finding aid while wearing cotton gloves.

“Don’t you think everything should just be digital?”

Well, maybe. Between funding and issues of digital preservation, I don’t think everything will be able to be available electronically for quite some time. I also always assure people that no one I know in the profession is resisting any digitization out of nostalgia for physical books—we also believe the future is digital!

“Do you ever throw things away?”

We sure do. Every archives has to make important decisions about what they keep and what they don’t. Space is a very significant issue in a lot of physical archives, and therefore irrelevant or duplicate materials are often removed. Though, sometimes the time it takes to go through a collection that seems pretty well-weeded already isn’t worth the amount of space it would save to take those few things out. Also, when we talk about digital archives, space is often not as much of an issue and therefore a lot of archivists think we should be less involved with winnowing collections at all.

“If the books are rare, doesn’t that mean they’re not very good?”

This was my favorite question I was ever asked at the desk, and I was only asked once. I think the guy meant if they’re not “good enough” to be published and widely circulated, why would anyone want to see them? I tried to convince him, but he didn’t want to see the reading room. I think the lesson there was you can’t win ‘em all!

Happy Archives Month to all those who are trying to spread the good word about archives!

Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.

Believe in Your Selfie – Personal Archiving in the Digital Age

Written by Zoë Nissen, 2nd year

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard Millennials called “selfish” or “narcissistic.” A lot of this gets blamed on social media activity, and especially on our selfies. Some researchers have even termed us the “Selfie Generation!”. We’ve been accused of using social media to only present the best versions of ourselves, that we’re shallow, that we’re vain, that we’re why society is going to hell in a handbasket. People like to point to the photos Kim K took during her sister Khloe’s DUI arrest as an example of just how self-absorbed we’ve become–as Kris Jenner so eloquently put it:


But hold up–let’s open a history textbook. Written by the winners, got it. All of these historical photos, so well-posed in order to make the subjects look good, yup, bet someone spent a LOT of time on those. Tell me: how is our carefully-constructed history different from my selfies?

Taking selfies is accessible to anyone with a smartphone. Is this still a privilege? Oh yeah. But more people have smartphones than their own personal archivist on hand. By taking our selfies, we’re documenting our lives, our own authentic experiences. Our selfies are US, our filter choices are our artistic expression, and setting these out into the world is our form of guerrilla archiving. This is our call to the world saying yes, we were here, we had these experiences. By putting them on an open-access platform, we force the world to acknowledge us. For folks from backgrounds that history textbooks tend to gloss over, uploading a photo to Instagram is a radical act of existence. By looking through someone’s Instagram uploads, you get a sense of who this person actually is: where they go, what they care about, how they interpret the world around them. This is a small personal archive.

No, I’m serious, think about it. When you tag a photo on Instagram, this is adding metadata. Your tags make your photos searchable, and if you use the right ones (oh man, is that “standardization” or something??) then it can become part of a historical narrative. Sometimes this narrative is pivotal (#blacklivesmatter) and sometimes it’s not (#nofilter). But either way, you are part of it.

Kim’s selfies documented her sister’s arrest through her own lens, and by uploading them to her website (however, behind a paywall), she has curated them and is able to share that personal experience with others. That, at least to me, sounds a whole lot like what an archive does: preserving information & providing access.

So keep taking your selfies. This is your documentation. However, as a preservation dork, I’d maybe advise you to make sure there’s more than one copy, and to not just post it to Instagram. Maybe take a pointer from Kim K and post to your own well-maintained website if you’re able. And/or collect them in a book. You never know when your platforms will die!

Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.

From the Archives – “I choose to see”

Written by Katie Dennis-Gunnerson. Originally posted on October 3, 2016.

Katie graduated from the UW-Madison Information School in May of 2017. She served as the SAA-SC President from 2016-2017. She now lives in Kansas City and works at The Kansas City Public Libary‘s Central Branch as the Customer Services Supervisor, managing the day to day operations and staff at the library’s main service desk, circulation, patron accounts, finances, etc.

Recently, I was scrolling through Facebook, as I’m prone to do while procrastinating, and I noticed former NFL player and coach Mike Ditka’s name was “trending.” I mostly ignore what’s going on in the sports world, so I must have really been procrastinating when I clicked on his name. It took me to an article in the L.A. Times, quoting Mike Ditka’s reaction to NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality.

Although I don’t follow the NFL, I’ve heard of Kaepernick and those who applaud or disagree with his actions, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. I want to talk about the line from Ditka that struck me as an archivist. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.” By this, I assume he meant because he has not seen what Kaepernick and others in the African American community say is happening, it must not be happening. Ditka doesn’t perceive it to be true; therefore there’s no reason for Kaepernick to protest.


Colin Kaepernick kneels during the National Anthem before a San Francisco 49ers game on Sept. 1, 2016. Photo courtesty of USA Today.

As individuals, we see different things and have different truths, we have different worldviews and experiences. But as individuals in the archival profession, we are called to document and preserve the whole of society, even those aspects that we can’t see for ourselves. The idea that police brutality is part of our society doesn’t fit into Ditka’s worldview simply because he’s never witnessed it with his own eyes. As I read his statement, I couldn’t help but think about how dangerous this mindset could be in the archival profession; How much damage it could do if archivists chose not to acknowledge the experiences of others, chose not to collect, preserve or document aspects of our society they could not or did not want to see.

One could argue that there is a lot we don’t see with our own eyes, but we believe happened because it’s been documented and preserved in an archive; the legitimizing effect of the archive making it part of history. None of us were alive during the era of slavery in the U.S., but we believe it happened because it’s been documented and preserved. I don’t think the ability to see is what is keeping Ditka from acknowledging police brutality as a reality for African Americans. Abuse of power and fatal use of force by police is happening to the African American community and it has been documented. Ditka could see it if he wanted to, but he is choosing not to because it doesn’t fit his worldview. Despite our individual experiences and worldviews, archivists cannot allow ourselves to be limited by what we can see or fit into our individual worldviews. We must choose to see the truths and experiences of others, even if they’re uncomfortable or not our own, and strive to preserve them as part of our shared history.

Furthermore, we must actively collaborate with communities, encouraging the documentation and preservation of their experiences to create more complete and accurate record of our shared history. Archivists must proactively seek to document that which we don’t see, rather than just acting as “the passive recipient and custodian of records” for those in power; otherwise “the archives [will] remain the instrument of the powerful.”[1] As archivist Randall Jimerson reminds us, we have a “moral professional responsibility to balance the support given to the status quo [those in power] by giving equal voice to those groups that too often have been marginalized and silenced.”[2] The African American community has historically been marginalized and silenced by those in power and subsequently, in the archive. When we choose not to see their experiences, like Ditka, whether consciously or not, we are “reinforce[ing] prevailing relations of power.”[3]

The first step towards breaking free of our individual worldviews and “entering the power contest on behalf of democracy”[4] is to acknowledge our responsibility and take “active steps to counter the biases of previous archival practices.”[5] We must “contemplate the nature of archives, the political orientation and application of archival science in different national and community contexts.”[6]

The second step is to choose to see by including the “records created by communities that are often “the subject of records rather than the maker” and to encourage and facilitate the preservation of community created records. Because “All layers of society [should be] participants in the record-making process.”[7]

The third step is to expand our idea of what belongs in the archive. In the digital age, we risk failing our mission to document the whole of society if we don’t establish ways to ethically collect and preserve records created on the Internet and social media, where some of the most significant movements of the 21st century are taking place. We must adapt and create space in the archive for this type of output.

When we choose not to see, we are succumbing to “the structural pull in all our record making towards the replication of existing relations of power.” Because we will inevitably collect the records of the powerful, “we cannot avoid complicity,” but we can work against the pull. I choose to work against the pull, to see and to not turn away, because I believe, as Verne Harris says, it’s our “moral imperative to do so.”[8]

Fortunately, there are archivists leading the way in the fight against complicity. These archivist activists are redefining what it means to work against the pull. Check out Documenting the Now, Bergis Jules and Ed Summers, as they discuss what it looks like to document history through social media. Also, as they teach communities to preserve their encounters with power through archiving video, and Jarrett M. Drake and A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland for inspiration.


[1]  Gilliland, Anne J. “Archival appraisal: practicing on shifting sands,” In Archives and Recordkeeping: Theory into practice , ed. Caroline Brown, 43. London: Facet Publishing, 2014. [2]  Jimerson, Randall C. “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.” The American Archivist (2007): 254. [3] Harris, “Archives, Politics, and Justice,” in Political Pressure, 181–82. [4] Harris, 181–82. [5] Jimerson, 254. [6] Gilliland, 44. [7] Jimerson quoting Bastian, 276. [8] Harris, 173

Copyright Information: Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.









What is an Archivist?

Created by Sara Klemann (2nd year), Ellen Faletti (2nd year), Zoe Nissen (2nd year), and Sean Reichard (1st year)

Blog content, current and past, belongs to the SAA-SC member credited. Please credit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Society of American Archivists-Student Chapter Archives Month Blog AND the creator if citing. Please contact the individual or for copyright details.