Written by: Mathieu Debic, Graduate Fellow, Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections
My posts so far during American Archives Month have focused on one collection or item in a collection held at the CSWR. This week, I want to do something a little different and highlight not one, but four collections. I won’t be doing deep dives on each one. Instead, I want to make a point about archives more generally through these five seemingly different collections. For convenience, I’ll list (and link) the collections mentioned in this post here:
Initially it might not seem that these collections have all that much to do with one another. Maybe they’re all related to popular fiction somehow? Or is this another of Mathieu’s shameless indulgences of his own interests? Well, yes, it is. But I still have an important point to make! And to do that, first we’ll need some background about these collections.
Day Science Fiction Collection (MSS 318 BC)
This collection consists of 111 boxes (yes, you read that right) containing American (and some British) science fiction magazines dating from 1926 to 1950. These periodicals were collected by Donald Byrne Day (1909-1978), an Oregon science fiction fan who used them to produce his Index to the Science-Fiction Magazines 1926-1950, a volume still used in research on this period. Before you raise a quizzical eyebrow too high, remember that the twentieth century saw the “Gold” and “Silver” age of American sci-fi and, throughout most of that century, there were a ton of sci-fi magazines. Here are just some of the titles collected by Donald Day: Air Wonder Stories, Amazing Detective Tales, Avon Fantasy Reader, Amazing Stories, Amazing Stories Annual, Amazing Stories Quarterly, Astonishing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Captain Future, Comet Stories, Cosmic Stories, etc.
Included in the collection are issues containing publications by now-famous sci-fi writers including H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, A. E. Van Vogt, and L. Sprague de camp, among others. Certainly not names to sneeze at! (For a further kick, come to the CSWR and check out the Day Science Fiction Photograph Collection (PICT-000-318) – it includes photos of Day working on his index from a dozen (!) filing boxes full of 3x5 index cards and typing his work up on a beast of a mechanical desktop typewriter – truly a labor of love!)
Popular Western Periodicals Collection (MSS 490 BC)
While not as huge as the Day Science Fiction collection – only 13 boxes instead of 111 – the Popular Western Periodicals Collection similarly contains issues of popular magazines about the American West. Some titles include True West and Frontier Times. This collection dates from after the Day collection, ranging from 1961 to 1985. As a hint to the point I’ll make later in this post, this collection brings together popular, as opposed to scholarly, publications about the West – think the magazines in the checkout line at the grocery store. Notably, several of these titles make an effort to distinguish themselves from fiction – bright, bold claims of “All True!” support the popular perception of the American West as a place that, in some cases, might be stranger or more exciting than fiction.
First Issue Periodicals Collection (MSS 148 BC)
Donated to the CSWR by Darcie A. Dittberner Sims, a graduate of UNM in 1969, this collection brings together the first issue (volume 1, issue 1) of 126 different periodical titles. The oldest is Gardening from 1892, and the most recent Sunset, issued in 1910. A brief perusal of the finding aid for this collection demonstrates the range of titles in the collection - everything from August 1895’s Modern Astrology to Business Philosopher in March of 1905, and even Lucifer [sic!] in January of 1897.
While this collection is limited in that it only contains the first issue of each periodical, it does show part of the range of concerns, interests, and ideas Americans wanted to read about in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these issues are quite fragile, and researchers might be asked to wear gloves while handling or reading them.
Volume 01, issue 01 of The Magpie, a literary magazine, published in Charlottesville, VA, July, 1896.
Volume 01, issue 01 of Thomas B. Mosher’s The Bibelof, “A Reprint of Poetry and Prose for Book Lovers, chosen in part from scarce editions and sources not generally known…,” Portland, Maine, January, 1895.
Seder Dime Novel Collection (MSS 312 BC)
Last but not least of the collections for this week, the Seder Dime Novel collection contains 20 boxes of dime novels, melodramatic and formulaic stories sold as serials and immensely popular in the late nineteenth century. The collection was donated by the family of Arthur R. Seder, a graduate of UNM, in 1971, and contains significant runs of several titles including All Sports, Liberty Boys, Brave and Bold, and Tip Top Weekly. Most recently, box 20 was added to the collection in April 2021, containing 45 issues of “The Liberty Boys of ’76.” While dime novels would eventually cede their market share to pulp magazines (like some of those collected in the Day Science Fiction Collection), they were incredibly popular, and profitable, during their heyday.
“Wow!” the reader might say, “those collections sound fascinating. But what was the point you wanted to make again?” Before I spell it out, keep in mind that these collections contain popular publications that, even in their own times, would not have been taken seriously as high art or literature. They were a bit like reality-TV shows: easily consumed, unchallenging. “Trashy.” One might think of them as “guilty pleasures.” And yet, the CSWR has 145 boxes of these things. Why?
To answer that question, we need to take a step back and think about history. Even more specifically, we need to think about the writing of history, or historiography. Historians use libraries, museums, and archival collections to conduct research using primary sources. That is, materials or documents dating from the time they are researching. Examples of primary source documents might include a grocery list written by Martha Washington at Mount Vernon, a copy of the Dallas Morning News dating from September 11, 2001, or journal entries written by an American soldier before D-Day. Materials like these might be held in special collections and archives, like those found at the CSWR, and they reflect the way that historical interests change. To a social historian of the 20th century United States, the collections I’ve written about this week might be a gold mine of information about the kinds of things normal people did in their spare time – what they cared about, what they feared, what they found appealing or important. That the CSWR holds so many collections containing popular literature might reflect the trend in historiography over the last century or so to shy away from solely focusing on “Great Men” like kings, generals, and titans of industry. The materials they leave behind get archived as well, of course, but collections also now contain materials about the everyday lives of normal people, reflecting a shift in the kinds of questions that historians and archivists ask. Questions like “what were teenage boys reading in the 1920s? Or “what kinds of magazines did housewives subscribe to in 1892?” Are now legitimate historical questions that center the lives and experiences of people who may not hold positions of social, governmental, or military prominence.
Not that there aren’t still problems. Archives are undergoing significant changes as it becomes clear how minority groups have been and continue to be silenced, oppressed, and marginalized historically. But this makes the question of what kinds of things get archived all the more important. As one of the sources for how we understand the past, archives provide an indispensable tool, but as I hope to have shown, archives don’t just come into being one day. They are themselves historical objects, and any attempt at righting historical wrongs or more fully understanding the past has to take into archives into account as well.