First Archival Visit

July 17, 2020

I hope I am not the only person who struggled to narrow their moment to a single episode. I am grateful for the prompt, though; in a summer full of dissertation writing and classroom prep, this prompt provided me an opportunity to appreciate how many times daily I interact with a humanities scholar or a piece of art, music, or literature.

Certainly a moment that stands out among the rest happened when I was twelve years old. It was the summer of 2002 and I was home with my Mom and my younger sister. We lived in a rural part of southern Ohio and we were between visits to Winters Public Library so naturally I was bored out of my mind—the kind of boredom I find myself longing for now. I am certain that I spent the morning begging my Mom to take me to the public library again—though I know that we had already been that week.

My Mom knew better, of course. As a consequence, I found myself re-reading a YA historical fiction book I had devoured the previous week. During this latest re-read, I must have focused on the latter half of the book because I remember reading the source page. And, that must have been when I saw it: the author had cited primary sources, a journal, from the Greene County Historical Society—that was in Xenia! That was within an hour’s drive!

I do not remember what I said to my mother to convince her to go. I would like to think I was persuasive but I imagine I was just loud and persistent. We took her 1992 Subaru Justy—already ten years old.

It would take me years to realize that her choice to take me to the archive that day was a risk and that it meant a sacrifice. We were, as I would learn later, one car repair away from “serious trouble” and this car was not in great shape. When she turned the key in the ignition, there was a sigh of relief: it had just enough gas to get us there and back. We only had one income at the time. I don’t remember the drive to the archive but I remember nearly every second of the visit once we stepped inside. I remember climbing the steps to the third floor and the warm smile on the librarian’s face who showed me how to fill out a call slip. She made me feel so welcome in that space, like I belonged there. And, like every good librarian wore a fantastic sweater, an orange cardigan to be exact.

I also remember how my heart raced as I watched her disappear behind the shelves. I also distinctly remember imaging what the diary would look like and being surprised when the contents arrived in a manila folder. I stayed until closing and my mother waited patiently on the first floor for at least three hours, looking up obituaries in the microfilm collection.

I think this moment stands out for two reasons: History seemed possible, it seemed comprehensible in that moment. It also stands out because over time and with coursework, I would come to understand how the book that brought me to the archive had flattened Ohio’s complex nineteenth century history—it had reduced this story to one of virtuous settlers and villainous Shawnee warriors. With coursework in history, English, and library and information science, I learned the vocabulary necessary to critique that book and how to find better books, better sources, and to tell more complete stories.