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Exploring the Archives

Archive poster tubes

Located in the basement level of Penrose Library, the Whitman College Northwest Archives is overseen by Ben Murphy, archivist and head of Digital Services, and Associate Archivist Dana Bronson.

An Illinoisan, Murphy earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Reed College and a master’s from the University of Chicago, and a master’s in library information science from the University of Illinois, where he also completed a special certificate in archives and special collections management. He joined Whitman in 2013 as a research and instruction librarian. He was promoted to his current position in 2017.

Bronson attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland and worked in the archives there as a student. At Simmons College in Boston, she earned her master's degree in library science with a concentration in archival management, as well as a master’s in history. She joined the archives staff in July 2017.

Murphy and Bronson shed light on how the archives are organized and how people can peruse the Confluence Project collection.

What do archivists do?

Murphy: Archivists collect, preserve materials that document some place, institution, topic or location, and crucially, make those materials available to researchers. The Whitman College and Northwest Archives collect documents about the history of Whitman College and of the Walla Walla Valley.


Bronson: Making records available to researchers involves what archivists refer to as “processing.” This involves a physical and organizational component, including rehousing collections in acid-free folders and boxes for long-term preservation. Another component of this involves intellectual work. We have to ask, how can we organize and describe the records so that they can make sense to potential users, while also preserving the original context that they had when they were actively used?

What does the archives collect?

Bronson: Whitman’s archives fall into two main areas: The first is the Whitman college side, including official and unofficial records of the institution, ranging from minutes of meetings of the Board of Trustees to records from the Office of the President, down to records of student clubs and organizations, publications, photographs, correspondence and scrapbooks.

Murphy: The second is the Northwest Manuscripts Collection, which is what the Confluence Project falls into. The Manuscripts Collection consists of the records of people, families, organizations and businesses, mostly in the Walla Walla Valley, that document the history of the region. This ranges from the earliest records of the missionaries and settlers that came to this part of the country, up to more contemporary activities and entities in the region, like the wine industry, agriculture, businesses, churches and civic organizations.

The archives also houses a rare book collection of about 5,000 items. Strengths include Northwest history and culture, a collection of finely illustrated texts ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and artists’ books, which are basically pieces of art that are usually handmade, and take the form of, or play with, or challenge the traditional form of the book.

How does the Confluence Project fit into the archive’s mission?

Bronson: The archive’s mission ties well into the purpose of the Confluence Project. We strive to document the history and culture of the Walla Walla Valley and the inland Northwest, but when using archival materials, it’s important to think about what is missing and ask questions about why those things might be absent.

Murphy: In that sense, I think that the Confluence Project shares our approach to thinking about history. As a project that seeks to curate counternarratives to the Lewis and Clark expedition, it recognizes that historical narratives are constructed, and they should be questioned. Similarly, archives are not simply a place to go to find out “what happened,” but are sites to construct new knowledge. For this reason, I think we were able to establish an understanding and a partnership with the Confluence Project.

Who uses the archives?

Bronson: You would assume mostly students and faculty – and we do have a large number of Whitman-affiliates using our collections – but most people don’t know that we also have very wide use from the local community and outside researchers. About 700 people on average come in here every year to do research with our collections. So on any given day, you'll find a student, a genealogist, community member, a professor — all sitting here together doing their own research with our materials. We even had people working on construction downtown; they needed to look at some welding records we had to save what he said would have been a $3,000,000 mistake if they drilled in the wrong place. So everything from that kind of question to someone looking for an obituary from the 1880s.


How can someone look through the Confluence Project collection?

Bronson: The “finding aid” for the Confluence Project was just put online. A "finding aid" is a description of the collection. Some finding aids are very high level, including only a paragraph describing what's there and giving the date range. Others are much more detailed, listing every folder in the collection, so that researchers could know, "OK, I want to look at box three and box four." The Confluence Project finding aid falls into the latter, more detailed, category.

What kind of researchers do you think will be interested in accessing the Confluence collection?

Murphy: I think there's content here that could be applicable to a wide range of different kinds of research. Obviously, people who are interested in art history and visual culture might use the collection to think about earthworks and other kinds of artwork that are in and of the landscape. Also, anyone who's interested in the politics and the narratives about the pioneers and the “discovery” of the Pacific Northwest might be interested in the Confluence sites. I think students in many disciplines could ask interesting questions based on whatever their major is and whatever disciplinary lens they're bringing to it — whether it’s politics, environmental studies, environmental humanities, sociology or many others.

Bronson: That's the interesting thing about our jobs, is that we do the work to make collections available to people, and then it's up to them to see what they might do with it. We try not to predetermine what kinds of uses should be or could be done with these collections. We leave it up to people to make those creative and scholarly choices.

What other activities take place in the archives?

Murphy: The archives also has a teaching mission. About 20 to 30 class sessions are taught in the archives using collections every year. We collaborate with faculty to plan and teach sessions that range from teaching about how to do research in archives, to skills needed to interpret and interrogate primary source materials. We teach classes in rhetoric, English, politics, anthropology, psychology, history, art history and visual culture studies, art, religion — basically many of the disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, and occasionally in the sciences.

Bronson: Finally, it’s important to remember that archives exist to be used! And they can be used for any reason. You don’t have to be a scholar to consult our materials. You can use them for a class project, for creative inspiration or just for fun.


Published on May 12, 2019
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