- The Converging Histories and Futures of Libraries, Archives, and Museums as Seen through the Case of the Curious Collector Myron Eells
The etymologies of the words archive, library, and museum reveal the antiquity of these words as well as their semantic evolutions over time. An archive, initially an ancient office building, is now associated with historical records and the places that preserve them. A library, a term once connected with ancient writing material or products, now connotes printed books and the places that provide access to them. And museums, originally places for worshiping the Muses, have become collections of historical, scientific, artistic, or other cultural objects and the places that exhibit them. These evolving meanings suggest a rich history that began soon after communications began to be preserved in writing, some five millennia ago, and continues into the present as libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs) continue to collect, preserve, and provide access to records, books, and other artifacts so that members of each new generation may understand the past and present and prepare for the future.
As LAMs continue to evolve in the digital age, remembering the past is helpful as we prepare for the future.1 Through the history of one collection, this article explores the period that largely shaped our present forms, functions, and perceptions of LAMs. When modern conceptions of LAMs were nascent, a nineteenth-century collector, Myron Eells, formed a collection of records, books, and artifacts. After his death, Eells's collection was donated to Whitman College, a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, and during the twentieth century his materials were subjected to the emerging and diverging professional practices of the college's library, museum, and archives. The article concludes with a preliminary consideration of how Eells's fragmented collection—and other cultural collections—might become more unified in the digital [End Page 185] age. By unifying collections that have been broken up due to the types of materials in them, aggregates of related materials can be restored and the possibilities for discovery, interpretation, and use can be enhanced.
The Formation of Eells's Collection
On June 1, 1888, Myron Eells began a commencement address at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington Territory, by reading an entry from an overland journal. The entry, written fifty years earlier, was about a short period of rest that a group of missionaries had taken "to repair up the past, and prepare for the future." This, Eells said, was an emblem for the aim of his address, "to look back over the past and prepare for the future" of the region. As he spoke, Eells held in his hands and read from manuscripts of early missionaries, and he quoted from printed material from his library. Applying a theological interpretation to the historical record that he had at hand, Eells told his audience that the "Hand of Providence" had guided the past and would enable him and his audience in the present to prepare for the future.2 Eells's theology, a classic form of Calvinism, guided his own hand as he helped shape the cultural record to which he applied this interpretation.3
Eells, the younger son of missionaries Cushing and Myra Eells, was born in the Pacific Northwest in 1843 at a time when the region was being reoriented from one integrated into the British North American fur trade to one with close social and economic ties to the United States.4 During the first few years of Eells's life, the boundary between American and British lands was finally established; missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and a number of others were killed in the Walla Walla Valley; and the Eells family relocated to the Willamette Valley.5 Eells, who spent all but three years of his life in the Northwest, was an active participant in the development of this remote frontier, establishing churches, schools, and other institutions of American culture. But Eells also became a student and curator of "the written and unwritten records" of the people and places around him.6
In 1866, after graduating from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, Eells joined his family on the former Whitman...