Powerful or Professional?: A visit to the New School’s University Archives

By etoole

As I rang the doorbell at the end of a corridor deep in one of the New School’s campus buildings, I was hardly given the feeling of having arrived at a place of great power. I had set up an appointment with the University Archivist to conduct an informational interview a week hence and had envisioned something quite different—or, at least above ground. Instead of a grand place proper to the “power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies,” (Schwartz & Cook, p.2) I was received in a neat and very plain space about the proportions of a conference room.

The layout was divided by open bookshelves which almost reached ceiling height into three parallel areas according to their function. The dividers stop short of the edge of the room to allow for a small walkway on either side. The first such section is primarily used as a working space for researchers where they are provided large tables on which to spread out their documents of interest. In times when no researchers are present or expected, this space may also be used for meetings or as an auxiliary space for archival processing.

The second, middle space had been set up as the offices of the University Archivist and her assistant. A pair of long desks framed the inside of this cordoned off area, each stretching the length of the bookshelves.  Two large iMac’s occupied the desk nearer to the back of the room, where the staff worked on finding aids and description work. The desk on the opposite side was left clear of any permanent items so they would be available for boxes which needed to be close at hand while working on the computer.

Behind the office area was the third space set up for storing, finding and processing documents. The back wall was made up of eight to ten large archival storage cabinets that moved along tracks in the floor as the archivist spun a ships wheel-shaped lever. Another table was set up near the cabinets for quick pulls from storage. Though this modern, compact shelving system provided several hundred linear feet of storage, approximately nine-tenths of the archives are hosted off-site on the other side of the Hudson River. The materials kept on-campus had either been requested in advance of future visits by researchers or were slated for processing/re-processing. The arrangement of the space was an almost perfect representation of its intended function: the ignoble and tedious tasks of re-foldering and arranging documents, describing and providing access to collections.

Judging only by appearances it is easily understood how Archivists come by their reputation as “objective, neutral, passive (if not impotent, then self-restrained) keeper(s) of truth.”(Ibid., p.5) The two-thirds of the archives – the office and storage areas – which are the domain of the archivist are laid out for tasks related to the preservation and retrieval of documents instead of analysis of their content which was relegated to the research space.

However, while the archivist typically does not produce research or build collections, the power to determine which collections would be either accessioned or relegated to the dumpster of history belongs mainly to the archivist. This is done in accordance with a document known as the institution’s collection development policy which details the purview of an archives’ collections. Typically, the parameters of a University Archives are fairly established, including materials of permanent value which are deemed relevant to notable alumni, faculty or institutional history. In certain cases, the committee responsible for deciding the scope of collection development will also accession materials which may not be related to the institution per se but to a subject area which has special significance to the university. In the case of the New School, whose most notable division is Parsons School of Design, it was decided that collections related to fashion and graphic design would be given special consideration during the appraisal process.

From this it clear that the archivists generally have some role in modifying their institution’s collection policy. Although the archives’ focus —  whether an institution, corporation or subject area – determines much of what is to be collected, archivists have further power outside of official policy in appraising a collection for accession.  Until recent decades, this has meant that archives “systemically excluded records about or by women from their holdings and, as institutions, have been willing agents in the creation of patriarchy by supporting those in power against the marginalized.” (Ibid., p.16) As a reflection of hierarchical social relations constructed on the basis of gender, race and class, there was created a strong tendency to preserve on that historical evidence which originates in or supports the master narrative. In the contemporary context, this may have the effect of rejecting collections for accessioning based on the archivist’s own prejudices as they inform the worthiness of preservation regardless of whether the materials fall within an archives’ scope of interest. Thankfully, as the archival profession has developed — growing increasingly self-conscious about their role in providing historical evidence to researchers in the distant future — a tendency to counteract the layers of historical exclusion by seeking out marginalized records has also grown. Archives, despite their pretensions of a neutral, professional outlook and humble, dusty circumstance do wield some power over what will be preserved.  Of course, archivists are still both limited to the documents which have been collected in the first place (often skewing towards those with greater resources) and directed by the research interests of those they serve (historians, the public and other collection committee members). The true power of the professional archivist to balance the elite-skewed record of events can be located in the actual appraisal process when applied to individual collections.


1)Schwartz, J.M. & Cook, T. Archival Science (2002) 2: 1. doi:10.1007/BF02435628

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