Many of us in the special collections and archives community have long admired the purpose and scope of UCLA’s Center for Primary Resources and Training (CFPRT), so I was pleased to learn that the UCLA library would be celebrating the Center’s 10th anniversary with a symposium on 24 October. As a result, I now know that we should all be celebrating its remarkable success as well. The audience that day learned via stellar presentations by ten CFPRT “graduates” that the program’s impact on them, and on their students and colleagues, has been profound.
Vicki Steele, the Center’s founding director, talked about being inspired by the ARL “hidden collections” conference at the Library of Congress in 2003 (the papers were published here). She flew right back to UCLA and put together a strategy for not only making a dent in her department’s massive backlogs (she noted they had lost both collections and donors due to a well-deserved reputation for taking years to process new acquisitions) but for integrating special collections into the intellectual life of the university. She offered a favorite quote from Isabel Allende: “you never know what you’re in training for, ” which resonates when students describe the “life-changing experiences” fostered by working at CFPRT. And based on the presentations, it’s clear that this is not hyperbole. Oh, and it was great to learn that providing a very desirable wage to the Center’s fellows was a high priority from the beginning; one graduate noted that the stipend literally made it possible for her to focus on her studies and complete her M.A. program.
I confess that I’ve occasionally wondered how much the Center accomplishes beyond getting lots of special collections processed. In the wake of this symposium, I’m wondering no more. The achievements of the graduate students who have participated, their evangelism for the importance of primary sources research, and the effects of the CFPRT experience on their lives render this program a model for others to admire and, resources permitting, to replicate. Ensuring that special collections and archives achieve real impact is a huge emphasis these days—as it should be. The Center is a model for one meaningful approach.
A few of my takeaways:
- Alexandra Apolloni, Ph.D. student in musicology, now uses sheet music to teach her students about the many aspects of society reflected in such sources. She teaches them to “read a primary source for context.” She noted that it was useful to think about how future researchers would use the materials in order to maintain objectivity in her approach to processing and description.
- Yasmin Dessem, MA graduate in moving image archive studies and now an archivist at Paramount Studios, discovered the power of primary sources to change history: evidence found in a collection on the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping suggests that the person executed for the crime was innocent. Too little, too late.
- Andrew Gomez, Ph.D. graduate in history, played a central role in designing and implementing the exceptional digital resource The Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform. In the process of this work, he became a huge supporter of the digital humanities as a rigorous complement to traditional historical research: his work involved standard historical skills and outputs such as studying primary sources and creating historical narratives, as well as mastering a wide variety of digital tools. He also learned how to address audiences other than fellow scholars; in effect, he saw that scholarship can have a broad reach if designed to do so. He is currently on the academic job market and noted that he is seeing ads for tenure-track faculty positions focused on digital humanities. The game may be starting to change.
- Rhiannon Knol, M.A. student in classics, worked on textual medieval manuscripts. I liked her elegant statement about the ability of a book’s materiality to “communicate knowledge from the dead to the living.” She also quoted Umberto Eco: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subject to inquiry.” I can imagine reciting both statements to students.
- Erika Perez, Ph.D. graduate in history and now on the faculty of the University of Arizona, reported that when looking for a job, her experience at CFPRT helped her get her foot in the door and tended to be a major topic during interviews.
- Aaron Gorelik, Ph.D. graduate in English, said that CFPRT changed his life by leading to his becoming a scholar of the poet Paul Monette. He had his “wow” moment when he realized that “this was a life, not a novel.” His work on Monette has guided his dissertation, teaching, and reading ever since, and he’s in the process of getting more than 100 unpublished Monette poems into press.
- Audra Eagle Yun, MLIS graduate and now Head of Special Collections and Archives at UC Irvine, spoke of the CFPRT as an “archival incubator.” She and her fellow students were amazed that they would be trusted “to handle the stuff of history” and learned the centrality of doing research before processing. They graduated from CFPRT with the assumption that MPLP is standard processing. Ah, the joys of a fresh education, to be unfettered by unproductive past practice! She felt like a “real archivist” when she realized that she could identify the best research resources and make processing decisions without input from her supervisor.
- Thai Jones, curator of U.S. history at the Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, gave a fascinating keynote in which he told the story of researching his activist grandmother, Annie Stein, who worked for integration of New York City public schools from the 1950s to the 1980s. He gathered a collection of materials entirely via FOIA requests, and the resulting Annie Stein papers are heavily used. (His own life story is fascinating too: he was born and spent his early years living underground with his family because his father was on the run as a member of the Weather Underground. Gosh. Rather different from my Republican childhood!) He opined that digitization has revolutionized discovery for historians but lamented that many of his colleagues today identify and use online resources only. Please digitize more, and faster, is his mantra. It’s ours too, but we know how difficult and expensive it is to achieve. We need to keep developing methodologies for turning it around.
Few special collections and archives can muster the resources to launch and maintain a program as impressive as UCLA’s Center for Primary Resources and Training, but many can do it on a smaller scale. (That said, Vicki noted that it was always easy to raise funding for CFPRT because “donors love the idea of supporting students.”) Do you work at one that has gotten started and from which colleagues might learn? If not, what are the challenges that have stopped you from moving forward? Please leave a comment and tell your story.
Jackie Dooley retired in from OCLC in 2018. She led OCLC Research projects to inform and improve archives and special collections practice.