The Importance of Being a Detective

Here’s how I was going to begin this blog post:

If you’re reading this, chances are, you’ve never done archival research before.

If you’re reading this and you have done archival research before, I would argue that you are in the minority of blog readers.

This is not to say that there aren’t many people out there navigating the blogosphere who plumb the depths of archives either as a profession or as a hobby, and who are dedicated to using social media to log and share the wealth of information that waits in boxes in libraries, courthouses, and museums everywhere.

This is just to say that, based on my own experiences, the majority of blog-readers cruising the net are young people who are looking for something entertaining to hold their attention

 

Then I realized that anyone who might happen upon this blog would likely be searching specifically for some aspect of the post’s content (or a spambot, from which I’ve gotten 333 poetically nonsensical comments so far). So the above argument doesn’t necessarily hold up in this case.

 

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Content from a virally popular Tumblr

My point stands, though, that when most young people hear “blog”, they probably think Tumblr. Tumblr is the home of the “cool”, the weird, tropey photography, angsty poetry, and pornographic GIFs. It is one of the most widely used blogging platforms on the Internet , and it is, I would argue, as much a social media platform as it is a blogging one. As such, for young people, blogging is largely a social function; a means of constructing an identity. Unfortunately, as Doug Rushkoff explains in detail in this episode of Frontline , corporations know this, and have managed to infiltrate this process of identity-shaping. When we “blog” about a movie, or someone’s music, or use popular hashtags, or like things on Facebook, we are engaging in marketing; a type of marketing that is so deeply engrained in social media culture that it has shaped how young people engage with the world through the internet.

 

Viral marketing is swift, engaging, and all surface. It leaves no room for deep, thorough engagement with information. The closest I ever came to archival research as a young person was obsessively (and illegally) downloading entire discographies of my favorite bands, or falling into hour-long Wikipedia holes (which I still do, occasionally). In high school, we were taught to use academic databases to do research. Thinking back, it must have been all they could do to get us to do a proper search, much less learn how to wade through everything and be able to discern the most relevant results.

 

This month, I had my first experience with archival research. I had been gearing up for it as a part a graduate class on early minority American literature. My professor had had done his fair share of digging up and resurfacing marginalized voices from early America, and he primes us by introducing us to a smattering of relatively obscure but already accessible female, African American, and Native American literature. It wasn’t until I started doing this research that I realized something kind of terrifying: if it wasn’t for someone doing this same thing – going into a library, digging around, sifting, transcribing, cross-referencing, being a detective – those voices would not be accessible. This is how history is made! This is how we know things!

 

Granted, it can be difficult. Corresponding with archives – I worked with the UNT library and the SMU DeGolyer library – can be daunting, but this is the easiest part. Curiosity is what gives their jobs meaning! Sifting through early American documents, deciphering, transcribing, and figuring out how things all fit together – that’s the difficult part. Not to mention figuring out how to get it out into the world! CSS, HTML, servers, hosts, domains, FTP, directories, databases. It’s mind-numbing! But here’s the thing – once I dove in, it was fun! It’s sort of empowering to know that you are capable of bringing something lost back into existence and being able to construct a platform with which to share that with the world.

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SMU’s DeGolyer Library in Dallas, TX

A record of the past – of people’s REAL lives – is crucial to a well-rounded society. The history we learn in school is only the surface. Marginalized voices – the everyday lives of women and people of color – are not valued in this version of history. I’ve learned over the past few months that being a good detective is the only way you can really learn anything about how things were, how people lived, how things became the way they are now, and what we can gather from all of this.

 

These skills should be taught in schools. Young people should be given the means to be detectives – not just in terms of databases or Wikipedia, or even books in the library, but with primary documents, with physical materials. It seems urgent to me that so much of the information young people consume today is mediated by outside forces with tainted agendas (I can only hope that the writers of Wikipedia articles are as knowledgeable about the subjects of their entries as we had to become for the ones we wrote for this class). An informed society is one that is capable of growth and improvement upon past failures, and in order for people to be truly well informed, I think, people must not only have access to primary documents, but be able to gather, process, synthesize, and share it with others.