Scholars as Pollinators


I spend a lot of time in archives, which is challenging since I prefer the outdoors. The upside is that they are often located in places that I may not otherwise have a chance to visit. I got my start as a researcher at the Sequoyah National Research Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Newberry's D'Arcy McKnickle Center provided me with my first crack at archival research as a dissertation writer in Chicago in 2014. I spent my last year of graduate school at Yale at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and made pilgrimages to the National Archives in Washington D.C. whenever I could afford to. Earlier this year, I hit the road and convened with fellow historian Pekka Hämäläinen in Lincoln, Nebraska to visit the Nebraska State Historical Society, as well as archives at Standing Rock, Pine Ridge, and Pierre, North Dakota. This year and next, I will be a fellow at Ben Franklin's former hangout and one of the oldest archives in the U.S., the American Philosophical Society.

All of this time searching databases, consulting with curators, perusing finding aids, chatting with librarians, requesting materials, and handling original documents has yielded an added bonus: I have begun thinking of myself as a pollinator. Like flowers, archives do their best to attract visitors. They hold exhibitions to show off their collections, create websites to digitize their holdings, engage in community outreach to encourage dialogue about their materials, and, crucially, they raise funds to support academics in need of a place to land.

As an historian, the success of my work depends on being able to drop in to these sites of intellectual pollination. Like bees, we must enter, gather what we need, then fly back to the hive. Like honey, our gifts pour slowly from books, articles, lectures, and presentations. This is a cycle of reciprocity.

Much that I agree with has already been said about archives as institutions. They often feel more like mausoleums than the fragrant insides of flowers. But perhaps if we can imagine the fine dust on these old books, files, and photographs as pollen, we can claim a chance to enact the magic of bees.

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