CoPAR Bulletin 2: Taking Stock of Your Records

Taking Stock of Your Records
by Michael A. Little

The bulk of written or recorded information in anthropology, or for that matter, in any professional field, ends up not being published, and hence, unavailable to the public at large. Yet this unpublished information can have value in three major categories. It may include: (1) data that are useful for future research; (2) historical materials that will help to interpret the data or to place it in context; and (3) information that is germane to studies of the history of anthropology.

In the realm of scholarship and science, the ratio of unpublished to published pages is probably on the order of 50:1. These unpublished materials include field and laboratory notes and notebooks, with basic data and interpretations and analyses, tests and rejections of ideas (some, perhaps, not so wisely rejected), and successive drafts of manuscripts containing ideas represented in different ways. Within science, we know that Charles Darwin’s comprehensive notebooks that span five decades of his life have been an invaluable source of conceptual, theoretical, and historical evidence for contemporary scientists and scholars of evolution, and have contributed to what some call the “Darwin Industry.” Outside of science, we know that Mozart’s legacy of brilliance left us with near-perfect, single drafts of his compositions, while Beethoven’s brilliance was reflected by his successive drafts, each carrying the music a step forward toward perfection in their final form. Drafts of manuscripts, lecture notes, or other documents represent changing ideas that provide insights for us into the creative process, whether it be in music or anthropology.

Research into the history of the profession, biographical studies of anthropologists, and assessments of their contributions require records such as correspondence, papers, photographs, and other unpublished materials. Documenting the life and ideas of an individual anthropologist and where she/he fits into the history of the discipline can not be done without reference such materials.

What follows in this brochure are some suggestions to you, as an anthropologist, on how to take stock of or survey your records so they may be of value to others when donated to an archival repository.

The Multiple Roles of an Academic Anthropologist

An anthropologist who teaches and conducts research at an academic institution engages in a variety of activities that have an impact on the profession. Research is planned, results of such research are incorporated into lecture notes and teaching, undergraduates are taught and guided in their careers, graduate students are trained, and teaching/research programs are developed at the home institution that can provide new directions for anthropological inquiry. New ideas, new training modes, new administrative procedures, are often accompanied by disagreement and outright conflict, but certainly are represented by abundant exchanges of memos and other correspondence.

Research activities are not simply represented by designs, proposals, data collection, analysis, and publication. There also are the politics of ideas, the strong opinions that slow down or accelerate progress, the often incredible efforts expended in merely getting to the point of data acquisition. And there are the detailed data, which may be represented in the form of letters, diaries, text, extensive notes, photographs, tape recordings, or recorded quantitative values. Even the step from raw data to manageable data, in what is known as data reduction, carries with it changes that may obscure important results. Hence, the conservation of research records at all levels is an important issue in the preservation of information.

There are special problems in today’s world of communication, documentation, and preservation. Whereas documents were principally handwritten, typewritten, and printed during the first half of the 20th century, communication became increasingly ephemeral during the second half of our century with increasing use of the telephone and electronic mail. At the same time, numerical data recording moved from perforated tapes to computer cards to electronic computer storage. These contemporary practices present special problems to those concerned with preservation of our anthropological heritage. (See CoPAR Bulletin No.13 on Managing Electronic Records).

Identifying Your Records

In looking around an office or complex of offices, information can be found in a number of places discussed. One of the cardinal rules of archival preservation is “do not make decisions, yourself, about which of your records should and should not be preserved.” Your job is to identify and survey the materials rather than to sort and discard. There is a possible exception to this rule: if you find that in your unpublished papers there is information that could cause harm to others, you might consider other options for these materials such as a time restriction (See CoPAR Bulletins 9 & 10 on Ethical Issues to Consider When Depositing Your Records).

Your Library.  Libraries have intrinsic value, but they also can tell about the interests of and influences on their owner. Other information that is of value are marginal notes that the owner might have made in her/his books. If your papers are donated to a library archive, then you may wish to donate your books to the same library. It would be helpful to catalog your books for future researchers before they are transferred.

Theses. Theses represent who has been trained and which students may have been influenced by the ideas of a teacher. Acknowledgments are of particular interest.

Manuscripts by Other Authors. Manuscripts provide information about close contacts among colleagues and the knowledge base of the owner. They also provide insights into access that individuals had to unpublished information.

Your Own Manuscripts. Successive drafts of one’s own manuscripts provide information on the developments of ideas and the creative process itself.

Correspondence/Memos. There is a wealth of information in correspondence and even the dreaded memoranda that deal with the day-to-day activities of a professional life. To gain a sense of the power in these documents, reread your own correspondence from the distant past — these apparently trivial documents can provide chronology and a chronicle of activities that you have forgotten.

Biographical Material. Any autobiographical or biographical materials in addition to sequential vitae are invaluable.

Lecture Notes and Associated Documents. Classroom lectures are syntheses, provide general knowledge, and often have embedded in them the germs of original ideas. From the beginning of a career to its end, lecture notes and lectures evolve. They are particularly interesting in the context of changing content and prevailing theory in anthropology.

Memorabilia. These materials can be a treasure trove to the archivist, biographer, or historian. Most of us keep a box or two of prized items: awards, other kinds of recognition, notices of meeting attendance, news clippings, and other personal items. These have significance in understanding what has meaning, both intellectual and emotional, to an individual.

Calendars/Appointment Schedules. Working out the chronology of people’s lives depends on dates, which are usually found on letters and memoranda and research data materials, but not on lecture notes, manuscripts, memorabilia, and preliminary forms of data analysis. Calendars and appointments schedules are useful in attributing dates to activities, and they also provide a measure of the kinds and the density of professional activities that one undertakes. What is the tempo and mode of an anthropologist’s life and how does she/he manage manifold demands?

Research Data. Research data are acquired in many ways and take many forms. Diaries, field notes, and interviews, although unique documents, can usually be interpreted by others in the absence of the author. These are among the most valuable documents with which to reconstruct a past behavior and social setting, one that leaves little or no other record. Other forms of data, including formal questionnaires, administered tests, and quantitative records, may require documentation for interpretation. Computer print-outs of strings of numbers with no information or even variable fields are examples of lost data. Special problems of electronic and other data can be found in CoPAR Bulletin 13,Managing Electronic Records, and 14, Photographs and Audiovisual Materials.

More Information

Further information might be sought from archivists at your home institution library. Information on the next step toward preserving your records can be found in CoPAR Bulletin No. 4 Finding a Home for Your Records. Should you wish to discuss your professional records further please contact:

Michael A. Little
Dept. Of Anthropology
State University of New York
Binghamton, New York 13902

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