Written by: Mathieu Debic, Graduate Fellow, Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections
The Center for Southwest Research isn’t just about the organization and preservation of archival collections. We also offer instruction in the use of archives and tips on conducting archival research. Last Friday, October 21, Prof. Frances Simon’s Intro to Photography class (ARTS 1410) took a field trip to the CSWR to get to know the Center and learn about some of the historic photo formats in the collections. Dr. Margie Montañez, Curator of Latin American Collections, and Jolene Dezbah Manus, Curator of Native America Collections, teamed up with Cindy Abel Morris, the CSWR’s Pictorial Archivist, to lead a lecture and hands-on presentation about the CSWR’s pictorial archives.
The field trip began with an introduction to archives – what they do, how they work, and some contemporary questions surrounding archival collections. As Dr. Montañez put it, her role in the presentation “was to critically situate archives so students can begin to think critically how archives shape history and access to the past. This class conversation happened first to set up the critical lens to start approaching the physical collections.” This introduction helped students understand that archives are living, contextualized things – they are themselves historical, and reflect social and historical changes over time. Dr. Montañez encouraged students to think about what they find in the archives, but also what they don’t find, or what seems to be missing. One important way in which archives demonstrate their historicity is through description (or misdescription, or lack of description) of archival objects. To encourage Prof. Simon’s class to develop a sense of just how important – indeed, personally important – the question of archival description is, Jolene Manus took the podium next to describe the experience of finding family members of hers in not one, but two archival collections.
[left] Jolene Dezbah Manus, Curator of Native American Collections, describing finding her family in Northern Arizona University’s archival collections
[RIght] Jolene Manus holding the photo of her great grandfather Nelson Gorman and his family that she found in a CSWR collection
As Jolene put it, “I wanted to convey to the students that when using archival photos for study to look beyond the edges of the photo and include the context of the collection. One family member that I’ve now seen an image of in two in archival collections (One at CSWR, the other at Northern Arizona University archive) is my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. His name was Nelson Gorman, Sr. There is a picture of him, his first wife, Alice Peshlakai Gorman, his baby son Carl Gorman (Zonnie Gorman’s father) and their daughter. This image is in one of Simeon Schwemberger’s photo albums from his collection here at CSWR. Simeon Schwemberger was a Franciscan at the St. Michaels Mission on the Navajo Reservation. When we talk about historic images of Native Americans, there is usually a lack of personal information such as their name. It would be appropriate to include in the “Description” metadata an update on their names. I like to encourage Native American students (and all students) to take a look at images in archival collections because there is a likelihood that they will find an image of a relative in a collection.”
With this context established, the next speaker was Cindy Abel Morris, the CSWR’s pictorial archivist. As part of her presentation she first introduced online access points for the CSWR’s pictorial collections, including New Mexico Archives Online (NMAO) and New Mexico Digital Collections (NMDC). NMAO serves as an access point for nineteen different archival repositories statewide, including the CSWR and Special Collections at UNM. Researchers can use the search functions to discover collections of potential interest and request materials to consult in the Anderson Reading Room. NMDC similarly offers an access point to several repositories statewide, but it specializes in digitized versions of materials. Researchers can consult the digital materials on NMDC from anywhere with an internet connection, although downloading high-quality images of the materials is restricted to users on UNM campus or logged in with UNM credentials.
Cindy also made another important point about archives in general, and the CSWR’s pictorial collections in particular. Archives differ from library collections in that they often house one-of-a-kind objects that are irreplaceable. While books may go out of print or become difficult to find, it usually isn’t too much of a problem for, say, a public library to replace a volume that got some unwanted attention from a patron’s dog. Most libraries, unless they are specialized in some way, also tend to have a broad range of materials available. Stephen King’s most recent novel, for example, will be available at just about any public library in the country, although you might need to get in line to read it. Archives, however, are a different story. Archival collections often reflect certain specializations or particularities. The CSWR, for example, specializes geographically and topically in the American Southwest, with ancillary specialties in Central and South America, the Albuquerque area, and UNM itself. There are some items and collections that might seem a bit out of place, but these can all be traced back to some connection to the collection’s specializations and strengths. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to expect a substantial collection on the horticultural practices of the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea at the CSWR. Information on dryland agriculture, on the other hand, or materials on the construction and maintenance of acequias from the Spanish colonial period to the modern day, might be more readily available at the Center.
As archives grow they develop areas of particular strength or specialization, whether serendipitously or as a result of institutional goals or acquisitions guidelines. Cindy pointed out three themes that the CSWR pictorial collections are particularly well suited to address: photo formats & techniques, photography in Mexico, and photographs of Native Americans. Researchers interested in any of these three topics (among others) will likely find the CSWR’s collections useful in answering a wide range of questions. As part of her demonstration Cindy distributed items from several photographic collections held by the CSWR, including examples of ambrotypes, cartes-de-visites, cellulose negatives, daguerreotypes, and (my favorite) 35mm and lantern slides.
[Left] Camilo viewing a glass plate negative and its corresponding print from the Henry A. Schmidt Photograph Collection (PICT-000-179).
[Right] Jeanette, one of the CSWR’s Access Desk student workers viewing a photo from the Simeon Schwemberger Photograph Albums Collection (PICT-2016-003)
In addition to gaining a new and more critical sense of archival collections and their value, Prof. Simon’s students also gained experience in handling fragile archival materials. Many of the photographic materials that Cindy pulled for the demonstration are quite old and require careful handling with gloves. Handling and viewing physical these physical objects helped students develop a “felt” sense of the past, and of its connection to the modern world. It may be convenient to snap a high-quality photo with your phone camera, but there’s nothing quite like handling the physical things themselves to develop a sense of how photography has changed since its early development in the 19th century.
For those interested in viewing some of the CSWR’s pictorial collections, NMDC offers several digitized collections. To see collections that are not yet digitized, researchers, students, and members of the public are welcome to visit the Anderson Reading Room, open Monday to Friday from 10:00AM – 4:00PM. No reservations are necessary – just come curious!