restricted access Where the Evidence Is: Or, Willie Sutton Visits the Library
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Where the Evidence Is:
Or, Willie Sutton Visits the Library

Being asked to think about evidence and the archive brings to mind the apocryphal words of the twentieth-century bank robber Willie Sutton. When asked why he kept robbing banks, he is reported to have said, “Because that’s where the money is.” For many scholars in the humanities, especially those working on projects of a [End Page 186] historical/historicist nature, the archive serves a similar function: it’s where the evidence is. The archive is a vault full of the stuff you need— “evidence”—to be able to do what you want. In addition to providing authoritative support for arguments, the archive also helps certify scholars through awarding grants and fellowships, which provide much-needed economic and institutional capital. And thus the challenge confronting scholars is how to find the right section of the vault and safely extract the evidence you need (hopefully not at gunpoint). But is this really what we mean by an archive (as opposed to “the” archive)? And is this how scholars think about archival materials in fields and disciplines that are less influenced by historicist approaches?

My contribution to this forum is informed by two perspectives—my work on nineteenth-century popular print culture, which uses an approach that is heavily informed by the history of the book; and my experience as the director of academic programs at the American Antiquarian Society, an independent research library in Worcester, Massachusetts, whose collections include over four million items of American printed materials from 1640 through 1876. One of the great privileges of working at AAS is that I get to see our research fellows and other visiting scholars apply a range of approaches to collection material that vary by discipline, chronological period, and intended output—approaches that are often quite different from the way that I think about my own research. These approaches are based on different ideas of what counts as evidence and what constitutes archival research, and these ideas are in turn shaped by the particular ways in which the AAS’s collections are organized.

At the outset, I would warn readers of the great number of gross simplifications that this piece will contain. With that caveat in mind, I want to complicate one of the key terms of this forum: the “archive.” I am neither a librarian nor an archivist by training, but many of my colleagues are, and it is important to keep in mind that the terms “library” and “archive” mean very different things to people who live in that world than they do in their common usage in the literary field, even though they are both understood to be primarily repositories for textual evidence. When literary scholars today refer to “the archive,” they are most often referring to what people in the field think of as a special collections library: a library that contains books or other materials that are rare or in some other way special (association copies, for instance), but that are not original or unique. Many institutions combine special collections libraries and archives, or house them in the same building [End Page 187] (which is often referred to as the “archive”), but to specialists in information management, they are fundamentally different in both organization and purpose. Adding to the confusion is the fact that librarians and archivists often receive their training at the same library schools, but they do so on different tracks, with archivists pursuing specialized coursework in records management and collection description. The distinctions between these related branches of the library field can appear somewhat arbitrary. The Society of American Archivists holds its own annual conference, while the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section— the division of the American Library Association that most directly bears on the work of special collections libraries—meets in conjunction with the ALA’s annual conference.

To clarify the distinction, libraries hold published materials, which are by definition not unique (even though a library may hold the sole known copy of a work). These works are independent of each other— they are published separately, and the library’s collection will not lose coherence if one or more...