Written by Zach Fruit, a student in “Behind the Reference Desk: Archival Methods, Forms, Theory.”
As part of a graduate English course I am taking with Jean-Christophe Cloutier entitled “Behind the Reference Desk: Archival Methods, Forms, Theory” I recently had the opportunity to process a collection of papers belonging to August Mencken. This class has given us the opportunity to read foundational texts of the archival profession, literary criticism engaging the concept of the archive, and literature that problematizes or incorporates the archive as a symbolic and formal structure. In the class we have worked with specialist John Pollack from special collections, including a tour into the very belly of Van Pelt, as well as archivist Holly Mengel, including a tour amongst the many desks of archivists working at Penn. As an aside, the staff at the Kislak Center is incredibly helpful, and if you haven’t used this facility you are wasting your resources, although I encourage you to set up an Aeon account before anything else.
After touring the library, figuring out finding aids, navigating the Theodore Dreiser Papers, assigning research value ratings to unprocessed collections, and reading some very dry archival textbooks, we were given the chance to process August Mencken. If you are wondering who August Mencken is, that is probably why I was allowed to help process his papers. August was the unfamous but ambitious younger brother of H.L Mencken, a civil engineer and naval enthusiast who published an assortment of books (one of which is in this library, Designing and building the Great Pyramid). Another one of his books (or, more accurately, a booklet) is now accessible through this library in this newly processed collection. Entitled A model of the Confederate States cruiser Alabama, this rare book is one of eight semi-homemade copies that documents August Mencken’s years of research to build a scale model of the warship.
Processing August Mencken for me was (obviously) a learning experience. I had to read stuff to learn how to do it! It took a full three hour class session! (And according to the debates between archivists that I have been reading, three hours was a pretty good time.) But I don’t mean “learning experience” in exactly the pedagogical–or even utilitarian way that one might ordinarily define it. The tenuous use value of August Mencken’s personal papers, as you might have gathered above, is palpable.
Handling archival material is a strange experience. At first it just seems super cool. This is a really old newspaper, and a really old photograph. The edges of paper are crackling and yellowed, the technology of typewriters is semi-alien, and there is a voyeurism in looking over even the most mundane letter from someone who never expected you to read it. This is a romanticization of the archive, but it is also the reality of the archive.
That said, handling archival material is really boring. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of amazing things to find, but you do have to look for them and it will take more time than you want it to. Processing, then, is in some ways more boring (and in some ways thrilling in a totally god-complex way). Papers with no context are to be examined and reexamined for some indication of where it came from and with what it ought to be housed. The thing is, researchers come to look at archival material that interests them. They look at a note written by August Mencken and feel a little thrill. I didn’t know August Mencken (it is probably an elite few who do) and I would have thought that I didn’t need to know him (as nice a guy as he surely was). This is probably the position of many archivists in relation to newly accessioned material, and this is a good thing because it means new voices and experiences are finding representation. But for the archivist, maybe, it means an increase in boredom.
But, what is weird about handling archival material, even in the brief three hour organizational context that I did, is that it not only gives you some information that you didn’t have before (I now know what a topgallant forecastle is, for example) but it also produces an impulse to care about information that you didn’t really want to know about.
Looking through the newspaper clippings, letters, booklets, and photos that the unfamous baby brother of the extremely famous H.L Mencken had collected reminded me to not think of him in relation to his brother, but as a person with interests, passions, and successes that are still resonating physically across the many divides of history. That might be a very sentimental humanist reaction to archival material, but it is an honest one. To phrase it a bit more rigorously, unexpected nodes of contact in the archive can provide for a surprising cross section of historical contexts, impulses, and discourses that students and researchers might overlook in their critical impulse to find the thing that they are looking for by the person who matters. August Mencken’s papers indicate that he cared about his older brother and collected some items that referred to him (especially, touchingly, after his brother’s death) but mostly August Mencken seemed passionate about the CSS Alabama, about the way it was engineered and built, and whether or not it had a topgallant forecastle. Whether or not this means that we ought to care about this particular ship is beside the point; Mencken’s papers provide a historically specific and psychologically unique point of access into various academic discourses. Some of these include: the Navy, the Confederacy, H.L Mencken, self-publishing, monomania.
Another thing I learned: processing archival material is a lot of work and all of us should make an archivist somewhere smile by requesting a series from the most obscure collections we can find just to make that effort worth it.