Enter Squinting


As a university archivist I sometimes feel like I see almost the reverse image of what others see.

Black and white photo of a living room
Living Room in Wilk Apartment. 1940s. Eleanor Horst interior decoration photographs and renderings. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 25 Feb 2016.

There’s that saying: one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

We could just agree that this broad claim is true and leave it at that. But let’s dig down into that pile of junk for a minute. (We’ll save dissecting the archives/treasure metaphor for another day.)

Here’s what got me thinking about this. Recently I got a call from an elderly alumna who was keen to donate a lovely drawing by a well-known artist that she’s had hanging on her wall for many years. I passed on the offer, replying that we generally prefer to take items into the archives that are contextualized within a larger group of materials.

Then I asked a question that is automatic for a person in my position. Did the alumna, who’d graduated from Parsons School of Design in the 1940s, have any work representing her student and/or professional career that she might be interested in donating to the archives? I mentioned that we interpret work quite broadly when trying to document a person’s life. If she did have materials (even so much as a student notebook), then we’d very much like to talk to her about donating, and if we did take in a group of materials representing her work and life, then we might also consider taking the drawing that was so important to her.

Why yes, the alumna told me, her house was packed to the gills with her own work–there was art from her days as a Parsons student and lots of materials documenting her work as a designer. She’d had a long, successful career, but she didn’t have a name that many people would recognize, she said. She wasn’t famous. Would the archives be interested in that?

I went to visit the alumna at her house in the suburbs. “As you can see,” she explained, inviting me in and offering a cup of tea. “I’m not wealthy.” She regretted that she could not make a bequest to Parsons. “Look around,” she said, “you’ll see what I mean.” She waved her arm as though to dismiss as self-evident that her house held nothing of value. “Except for this,” she said, and led me to the drawing by the famous artist that she’d called about to begin with. This, she said, is quite valuable. Was I absolutely certain that we didn’t want it for the archives?

Illustration of a woman in a long sweater with a dollar symbol.
Sherry Cohen. “$” Intarsia Sweater, Pinstriped Trousers . 1987. Fashion Design Department records (pre-2008 accessions), box 3, folder 41.

There’s a body of theory about archival appraisal that refracts value into a mess of sub-terms: administrative value; archival value; artifactual value; associational value; continuing value; enduring value; ephemeral value; evidential value; fair market value; fiscal value; historical value; informational value; intrinsic value; legal value; monetary value; operational value; permanent value; primary value; secondary value. Theoretically, anyway, the archivist who gauges a group of records against each of these sub-terms will produce a clean matrix against which to make an overall assessment about an archival collection. I won’t get into all that, but wanted to highlight one of these subtypes: historical value. Here is how the Society of American Archivists defines it:

  1. The usefulness or significance of records for understanding the past. 
  2. The importance or usefulness of records that justifies their continued preservation because of the enduring administrative, legal, fiscal, or evidential information they contain; archival value.

It’s this idea about historical value that I believe gives an archivist that inverse eye when she walks into an alumna’s house. Ignoring normal markers of financial status, the archivist walks in squinting.

Is there a story here that will help others understand a particular past? If so, is there a body of representative material that might tell that story in a clear, full way?

That, in my view, would be of the highest value.