Sophia Lee and Michelle McKinley on Archival Finds

What makes an archival visit go from good to great? Professors Michelle McKinley of Oregon University School of Law and Sophia Lee of the University of Pennsylvania Law School discuss “happenstance discoveries” made in the archives and the significance of these finds to their own projects. Read more about the works shaped by this archival labor in Professor Lee’s recent book, The Workplace Constitution from the New Deal to the New Right (2014) and Professor McKinley’s forthcoming Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy, and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima, 1600-1700 (2016).

Edited transcripts of the videos follow:

Professor Sophia Lee on her experiences in the archives:

So I’ve worked in a range of different archives, I work all over the country, but some of the best stuff I’ve found was really happenstance. There were a few happenstance discoveries that I made in the archives that I feel like I really couldn’t have written the book without and they were flukes that I found them, to some extent. One of them came from being at the National Archives and just asking for more, and more, and more records and all of them had to be cleared by somebody in the back. This guy wasn’t even really an archivist but eventually he came out and he said,

“okay, you seem to be really interested in all these things. We don’t really have any of these things, but I do have this random, single microfilm roll from some moment when JFK said all agencies should microfilm all their records for some kind of record preservation. And it was kind of a partial undertaking—some agencies did it, some didn’t, none did it completely, but the Department of Justice has this one microfilm reel—and you’re welcome to look at it.”

And I found things in there that were kind of the lynchpin of the book, and I never would have been able to write it otherwise. I think you really have to, when you’re going out to the archives, befriend archivists, talk to people, and chat them up about your project. And be persistent, because sometimes the things you are going to most value are not going to be things you’re ever going to see listed in a finding aid.

I am already working on my next project and it doesn’t necessarily tie directly in, but in many ways the second book is inspired by something I found in the archives when I was working on the first book that just rung a little bell for me and set off a series of questions that have kind of tickled at my brain ever since. And so I just sort of set it aside; oh maybe that will be…at first I thought maybe just an article or something that would follow on and once I started digging deeper it has grown in to what I think will be a whole book project. So the intellectual roots [of the second book project] are certainly in the first one even if the subject matter is not entirely the same.

Professor Michelle McKinley on her experiences in the archives:

Right at the time that I’m finishing writing—I’m on sabbatical, and I’m finishing my book, I have all my evidence gathered from the past ten years and I’m sitting down to write—the archivist says to me “you know, there’s a box. And we’ve never catalogued it; we’ve just never have had the time. Maybe it’s of interest to you?” So, I said (I’m always interested), so I’m like, “sure, I’ll look at it!” And then they bring me this box and it’s literally, you know, I want to say, sheaves of paper that are tied up with string. So what happens is that when you open the string…so, imagine opening a Christmas present that is sort of just, you know, not in a box the way that we have them now, but you open it and you just see hundreds of pieces of loose paper. And I look at it and I’m looking and it’s handwritten and it is…they’re called censuras.

It’s a huge find for me, and it comes at exactly the wrong time. Because I am finishing my book, and here I have this find that nobody has ever looked at. And it’s not that people are negligent in the archive, they just have so much material. And I have a feeling that this was a box that was just sitting there, waiting, because it was going to be so tedious to go through each piece of paper, figure out how to catalogue it, and where it went to. So here I am and I’m looking at…so, censuras are what I call spiritual subpoenas in which a litigant gets the priest at high mass to urge people to come forward with any information that he or she might have about a proceeding. And it can only take place, it can only be issued by the priest.

Then I started to get really really interested in it and so I go back and I look at all of these ecclesiastical manuals, and it tells the priest that they’re to cover the Bible in black cloth and have a candle burning and this is the prayer: it says “if you don’t come forth, you will be condemned to Hell, your wives will be widows, your children will be orphans, they’ll go begging from door to door and nobody will receive them. Sodom and Gomorrah, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and everything will happen to you.” So it’s actually pretty scary. It’s this way that they’re using the pulpit and the power of God to say “you need to come forth with any information that you have.” It turned out to be a very effective way of getting people to talk about what they knew or what they might have witnessed. So what I ended up doing, because I can’t dig into the whole box (there’s like 9,000 pieces of paper), what I ended up doing was looking at—because I was writing a chapter on baptism—children whose mothers, or children who then grew up later, using this process to get people who knew that they were freed as children to come into the court. So I focused on that and you know I really want to go back and just spend more time with it.

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