By Eira Tansey
The Organization of American Historians (OAH) recently held its annual meeting in Philadelphia. I attended for the first time, since I was part of a panel on librarians, archivists, and historians speaking about “historical surprise” and the invisible labor of archivists and librarians in facilitating the work of historians. This was only the second time I had attended a historians’ conference, and I find attending non-archivist conferences to be a very illuminating experience in learning about the norms and trends in other professions.
OAH is dedicated to the teaching and scholarship of American history, and the program committee clearly took great care in developing a conference program that echoed many of the most pressing issues in contemporary American society and culture. These included sessions on the rise of white nationalism, immigration in the United States, labor movements, the role of monuments in public history, and much more.
Perhaps this happens at all historians’ conferences, or perhaps it was a nod to the OAH theme—“The Work of Freedom”—but as an archivist it was intriguing to hear how historians did their work: where they found sources, where they expected to find sources and failed, and what steps they had to take when the archival record went cold and they had to pivot into a new research direction.
Considering methodology also leads to something that marks historical discourse apart from archival conferences: as a disciplinary field, historians are trained to situate themselves in a larger ongoing conversation. As an applied field, archivists do not have quite the same model of professional discourse. In every session I attended, my notes accumulated several reading recommendations as a result of nearly every panelist saying something like “My work builds upon John Doe’s book Highway to Hell where he articulates a theory of how possums engage in collective action to avoid becoming roadkill…” Because historians anchor themselves so deeply into existing conversations, attending a history conference as a non-historian is a little like cannonballing into the deep end of an Olympic size pool: fun, but there’s a risk of getting overwhelmed if it’s your first time jumping in.
A message that I took away from OAH, and that some historians took care to overtly make, is that the trend of reactionary and anti-democratic political regimes is not unique, and to paint them as such is not an accurate historical assessment. Much of our current political atmosphere—particularly US issues that center racial justice, gender equity, and the role of labor in relation to capital—must be understood in at least the last 50 years of American history, if not much longer. (Another word I learned at OAH is periodization, which to my non-historian ears seems to mean you decide to define the temporal time frame for what you mean to study.)
For example, David Graham’s presentation of ex-slave reunions highlights how Civil War public memory has always grappled with the depictions of the relationship between plantation owners and enslaved people. Panelists on the “Toward a Transnational History of White Nationalism since 1945″ emphasized that despite a tendency to characterize white supremacists as parochial and insular, white supremacists developed a transnational network of information exchange. For example, many American white supremacists maintained extensive links with apartheid South Africa.
Being historians, the most vigorous debates in panels focus on what happened in the past, not what should happen now or in the future. This was exemplified in the panel on the golden age of capitalism, where a number of economic historians debated the question of whether the post-war period was the high point for US capitalism. Some said yes, some said no, some used the favorite answer of archivists and lawyers alike (“it depends”), and at least once audience member suggested that the golden age of capitalism is now, at least for capitalists.
The panel that drew the most deeply on the availability and nature of archival records was the session on surveillance in the post-war US. Viet Trinh presented research involving Huey Newton’s papers and the role FBI memos played in developing a state narrative that pathologized communities of radical black activists including the Black Panthers. Justin Randolph presented about the saga of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol records, which documented significant surveillance activities carried out against Mississippi’s civil rights activists.
Learning how our users engage with the archival record is beneficial for archivists. Although we serve many audiences, historians have always been, and will continue to be, some of the most consistent visitors to archives. The profession of history is changing just as much as the profession of archives, and like us, historians are working hard to contribute to our understanding of the world.
Eira Tansey is the Digital Archivist/Records Manager at the University of Cincinnati Libraries. She serves on SAA’s Committee on Public Policy and is immediate past chair of the Records Management Section.