A recent post on The Wiley Network saw Ray Abruzzi exploring ideas around research impact, that the need to demonstrate the impact of research outside of academia can be found in materials from The New York Academy of Sciences archive dating back to the 16th Century.
Archives offer an opportunity to explore papers, images and communications that can weave links between the current day and the historical. Modern day research is built on the foundations of the past and the digitization of archives can provide a fascinating look at the steps made along the way. Ray’s post looked at how, contrary to what might be believed, scientists have been encouraging public support of their work for centuries. Just as interesting though is the way archive materials can draw the public’s attention directly by way of what has been uncovered.
The Glasgow School of Art archives recently made the UK news, as papers discovered during digitization provided a fascinating insight into the communications of Francis Newbery, Director from 1885 to 1918. Letters from: designer and social reformer William Morris; world-renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin and author HG Wells captured the interest of the public and brought to life the period when the institution’s international reputation was growing. Described by archivist Rachael Jones as “real gems”, the letters support expert theories on the inspirations behind the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and help further define the context of his work. Archive material can strengthen evidence for popular theories and bring them back into discussion.
Certain discoveries can also lead to some of the most interesting headlines. On International Women’s Day, York University archives uncovered the achievements of Catherine Muriel ‘Kit’ Rob. Documents that include letters and diaries spoke of a ‘forthright’ Yorkshire woman who, despite not having the opportunity for a university education, let her passion and keen interest fuel her career and saw her become the President of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. The papers not only illustrate Kit’s remarkable career, they also offer stories of the botanists she helped to develop. This is the beauty of an archive – providing real insight into the people and relationships that make up our past.
Sometimes these headlines can appear from the most unlikely of sources and a single sentence can have the most impact. For example, it is generally understood across the United States that St Patrick’s Day celebrations originated in Boston. Known for its extensive festivities, Boston claims the oldest St Patrick’s Day parade in the country, started by the Charitable Irish Society in 1724 to create a sense of community and honor their home country. A single unlikely source seeks to challenge that claim though – gunpowder expenditure lists.
Whilst exploring St. Augustine’s Spanish imperial history, Dr. Francis, University of South Florida-St Petersburg, uncovered gunpowder expenditures list for the years 1600 – 1601. A single entry refers to residents gathering together and creating a procession through the streets in honor of the feast day of ‘San Patricio’. This reference suggests that St Patrick’s Day celebrations may have not originated in Boston but in fact started 100 years earlier in St Augustine, Florida. It should not be thought though that the digitizing and uncovering of archive material has a negative impact on long held beliefs. Although this single document challenges the concept of the first St Patrick’s Day originating in Boston, it does not remove from the proud history of celebrations that the city has built up since. Instead, it offers those who are curious an opportunity to explore their history, and suggests a new branch of research for researchers and historians to follow.
Archives have power. Uncovered materials can confirm theories, offer stories and challenge long-held beliefs. The secrets they hold can inspire new questions and kick start new ways of thinking and of understanding the foundations of research and our history. A single document might inspire a new paper or thesis that can set a researcher down a new academic path. As archives are increasingly digitized and headlines appear, we look forward to following the stories that researchers and historians uncover.
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