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Behind the Reference Desk: Archival Methods, Forms, Theory

ENGL 771.301
Thursdays 9-12:00 pm

ROOM: Seminar Room 627, Van Pelt Libary (6th floor)

“Who knows what evil [mal d’archive] lurks behind the reference desk? The Archivist knows!” And so will you, if you take this graduate seminar, which is designed to give students a solid background in both current theories of the archive and in modern archival practices. By performing research tasks among disparate collections in various stages of processing, reading key theorizations of the archive, and assessing 20C-21C literary works that directly or otherwise engage the archival, the seminar is meant to bridge—or think together—theory and praxis. Our readings will consist of a mélange of theory, criticism, practical guides & histories, original sources, and literary fiction.

We will meet in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library itself (in one of the 6th floor seminar rooms) in order to access archival materials during our class sessions. We will have the chance to consult with Penn archivists and curators, and to discuss such issues as the concepts of original order and provenance, intellectual and physical control, the politics of appraisal and archival curation, materiality and ephemerality; the gaps and aporias that surround and define any archive; the imperial stakes of archiving; the advent of “born digital” materials; and the evolving challenges of preservation.

You will have the opportunity to review materials contained in different kinds of collections, and at different stages on the journey from acquisition to reading room, and to share your own “archive stories” as lessons in method. Along the way, we will address some of the fundamental challenges & realities of archival research today: how to prepare, how to “really” read finding aids, how to sift through an excess of material, and how to find what remains unknowable (that’s right!). The course should foster critical conversation about how archives are constructed, consulted, and conceived in recent scholarship and literature, putting pressure on the latter as a malleable form of archival thinking.

Assignments will include performing a finding aid exercise, creating a detailed inventory of an unprocessed box from Penn’s backlog, exercises in archival appraisal, and independent archival research followed by a presentation. The presentation will consist of a brief report on the experience and reasoning behind your research choices, and their outcome in the field. For at least one class session over the course of the semester, each student will be appointed as chief discussant, in effect guiding the group by making correspondences with our readings. For your final assignment, you will be given the choice between writing a research paper or developing a detailed and realistic research plan using what has been learned over the course of the semester.

fulfills requirements