From the AHA Activities column in the October 1998 Perspectives
A Call for Anecdotes
AHA Staff, October 1998
Can you find the most crucial materials you want to use in teaching and research in digitized form? Is your research library acquiring the materials you think are most important? When preservation measures become necessary, are the priorities and guidelines invoked ones that reflect the values and goals of scholarship? Once preserved in another form (microform, digital, and so forth), are the artifacts themselves still accessible when necessary? When items are put in long-distance storage, are the finding aids ones that fit well with how you conceptualize scholarly projects?
The AHA is working with librarians on a number of overlapping projects addressing these kinds of questions. Underlying all of them are decision-making processes that will work best when informed by scholarly needs and priorities. For instance, at present the guidelines rather ignore how priorities are assigned to different materials. Through implication, however, "importance" is most often determined by numbers (high usage) or by the ability to make the case through popular appeal to legislators or private funders.
We have been helping librarians make the argument that other criteria are important measures of value. To illustrate this point, we would like to collect examples from historians about primary source materials that have changed the direction of research and scholarly understanding about the past. We ask you to describe for us a single source that caused you to rethink your analysis, put other sources in a different context, led you to a different set of questions, and so on. The source can be in English or in another language (including a different script); it can be published here or outside the United States; it can be rare or just not widely available in other American collections; it can be an obvious kind of source, or (most helpfully) one that would not necessarily, on the face of it, appear to be singularly significant.
At this point in our discussions, references to sources located in U.S. libraries and archives (including those not attached to a specific educational institution, such as the Library of Congress and CRL) would be most helpful.
We hope the materials generated by this request will help to shape ongoing discussions with librarians concerning not just criteria, but the more general issue of collaboration between librarians and scholars, especially on the national level. We also hope the anecdotes themselves will help the libraries in question illustrate for their funders how important their collections are to scholars.
Write to us at the address below if you have an example that could elevate to a selection criterion the significance for research of particular source materials. Identify the source and the library or archive in which you found it, and explain (briefly—in about 100 to 200 words) the context of the source's production, and how it has changed research understandings.
AHA ("Anecdote Project"), 400 A St. SE, Washington, DC 20003. Fax (202) 544-8307.