FREAC Conference Paper

You Are What You Eat: Preservation, Discovery, and Access in Historical Research

Alea Henle

[Conference version delivered in 2016. Full essay, now titled “We Are What We Eat: Preservation, Discovery, and Research in Historical Scholarship,” published in The American Historian, May 2019.]

I am a librarian, archivist, and historian—not necessarily in that order—and today I am going to wear all hats at once. Given the limitations of time, this presentation will be long on argument and short on evidence – but I’m happy to discuss the latter afterwards.

All too often, historians plumb primary sources for content and mostly overlook the conditions through which the sources were preserved for use. There are, of course, exceptions. Scholars of material culture and the book often highlight the creation and preservation of particular items. Yet this often takes the form of focusing on the provenance or ownership history of individual items. For instance, authors of articles and monographs focused on a central source may discuss how and why it survived for their analysis—Laurel Thacher Ulrich does this at the end of A Midwife’s Tale and Rhys Isaac early in Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom. In each case, however, they do so only for the central diaries on which they draw and thus the dicussion is included partially as a curiosity and not necessarily as something with bearing on the analysis itself.1

Yet all sources, central and peripheral, large and small, complex and simple, primary and secondary, have histories. When we overlook these histories, or focus only upon provenance and lament how few sources have detailed provenance, we run the risk of reinscribing centuries of power inequities in our work.2

Anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot pointed out in Silencing the Past that unequal power results in unequal influence on history. A growing body of literature documents how power has and continues to shape and reshape the historical record. Over the past centuries, the very people interested in preserving materials for the writing of early American history (i.e. archivists, librarians, museum curators, collectors, historians) have embraced practices (for example selection, de-selection, arrangement, editing, publication, destruction) which affected what sources survive for access. Likewise, digital developments over the past decades, combined with unequal access to resources and idiosyncratic research practices to affect scholars’ exposure to various bodies of secondary literature.3

This paper asserts all sources, primary and secondary, have histories. These histories are not restricted to provenance or the ownership history of individual items. Sources have multiple histories for they partake in the history of any group into which they can be categorized. Take the example of Abigail Adams’ “Remember the Ladies” letter – it has a history as an individual letter, as part of Abigail’s correspondence, as part of the Adams Family Correspondence, as a Revolution-era letter, a letter authored by a woman, I could go on and on.

For the remainder of my time, I’m going to offer a few examples to highlight the importance of considering Preservation (ensuring sources survive for use), Access (means to find sources, such as finding aids, indexes, databases, and digital humanities), and Discovery (the researcher’s active role in finding sources) in historical analysis.


In 1822, John Howland of the Rhode Island Historical Society was given access to “a Box containing a great quantity of papers [of the Waterman family] promiscuously mixed and many partly destroyed by mice.” He “selected a large bundle” and returned the remainder. This is just one of many instances wherein historical society members, librarians, historians, and collectors actively took part in determining what materials to include or exclude. Given the circumstances of the papers Howland reviewed – mixed and mouse-gnawed – there’s no guarantee the non-selected materials survived. Assessments of collections changed over time. In the 1840s, the New-York Historical Society librarians reviewed key collections (for ex. the papers of Revolution-era General Lord Sterling) and found enough materials amongst papers marked “unimportant” to fill several volumes.4

We don’t know what criteria they used in making his selection, but many selections were made over the years based on race, class, gender, power, and evolving ideas of history. Indeed, the Schlesinger Library has received so many sets of women’s papers for which the matching mens’ papers had earlier been accessioned “across town” as it were, that librarians there joke they were the Ladies Auxiliary of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

I could go on, as I have literally written a book (manuscript) on how early historical societies shaped the historical record of early America, but I’d never stop, so . . .


I’m delighted with many of the digitization projects of the past decades. They’ve certainly made my research even though I currently work at an institution which does not subscribe to most major databases of early American history. This kind of digital divide is well known. But less well known, or at least less discussed in historical circles (although this is changing) are more subtle impacts on research and access.

Most historical databases and digital history projects providing access to primary sources focus attention on sources’ contents and facilitate users overlooking how the projects’ design, selection, and implementation—along with users’ interactions and searching practices—impact search results. To offer an example: Alexander Street Press’ North American Women’s Letters and Diaries is an excellent resource in many ways, and I endorse the goals behind making these texts more available. But the method of presentation emphasizes the letters and diaries’ original authors and de-emphasizes where the materials were obtained. Most of the letters and diaries come from printed editions—some from the latter half of the twentieth-century prepared using modern concepts of historical editing, but others from editions published in the nineteenth-century when most editors followed practices (deleting and altering passages without notice) which have fallen into disfavor. This means that a letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson edited by the staff of the Library of Congress within the past decades appears in essentially the same format as letters from Abigail to her husband which her grandson, Charles Francis Adams, edited and published in the mid-nineteenth-century—in one letter where Abigail wrote “spanking” Charles Francis’ substituted “personal chastisement.”5


Discovery depends in no small part on access to resource, either in person or through databases and digital resources – but it’s important to also recognize the impact of research skills and preferences. A relatively recent ITHAKA report on historians research practices described them as idiosyncratic. I’ve talked with several historians of early America, people I respect as scholars, and who use as their main source for secondary research (articles) either JSTOR or Project Muse. Usually they add the rider “because it has full text.” When I tell this anecdote to other librarians, I tend to get the same reaction: face-palm.6

Quite apart from issues of currency (since the most recent 3-5 years are often embargoed on these resources) reliance on any one resource—such as JSTOR or Project Muse—is not in-and-of-itself a problem. However such reliance has implications for research and awareness of scholarship. If a scholar is aware of particular journals relating to their topic which are not in their main (sometimes only) database of preference, they can consult the archives for relevant articles. But what about interdisciplinary journals? For instance, the American Archivist, the peer-reviewed publication of the Society of American Archivists, publishes articles on history and archives. The back issues, once out of embargo, are available for free on the web. 7

Now, for those scholars with access to institutions which subscribe to America History and Life (AHL) and the rest-of-the-world equivalent Historical Abstracts (HA), these indexing databases allow identification of relevant historical research across disciplinary and database lines. I’m not here as to evangelize about AHL & HA (although I highly recommend using them). But I know of at least one major research university library which cancelled HA due to low use and a number of graduate students in history at that same institution tended to overlook AHL in conducting research. Reliance on one or more full text databases, without broader searching, risks increasing siloization over interdisciplinary interactions.

I do not mean by this to say scholars need to be all things to all people, search all existing databases, or consider sources and their histories from all angles – but I highly encourage you to consider how analysis of sources and their histories in ways which relate to your subject and argument might contribute to your work. If you have access to Early American Imprints, America’s Historical Newspapers, American Periodicals, and other databases, as well as archival and special library collections, which, if any, provided a majority of sources? What might that say about whatever subject you’re researching?

Sources, primary and secondary, are the raw material which feeds historical scholarship. What we find and how we find it shapes our analysis. We are what we eat.

1Rhys Isaac, Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), xiv-xvii, 45, 330-331; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 346-352. For sample recent scholarship on the production and survival of sources, see Joanna Brooks, “The Unfortunates: What the Life Span of Early Black Books Tells Us About Book History,” 40-52, and Meredith McGill, “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the Circuits of Abolitionist Poetry,” 53-74, both in Early African American Print Culture, edited by Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Published in Cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia, 2012). With respect to book history, print culture, and manuscripts, a sizable majority of essays in the series The History of the Book in America, published by the University of North Carolina Press (2000-2010) discuss printed works. See also Jennifer Rutner and Roger C. Shonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians,” Ithaka S+R, 2012; Larisa Miller, “All Text Considered: A Perspective on Mass Digitizing and Archival Processing,” The American Archivist 76, no. 2 (2013), 521-541; Trevor Owens, “Mass Digitization, Archives, and a Multiplicity of Orders & Arrangements,”, last accessed 18 April 2018.

2For examples, see John D. Wrathall, “Provenance as Text: Reading the Silences Around Sexuality in Manuscript Collections.” Journal Of American History 79, no. 1 (1992): 165-178; Bastian, “Reading;” Jeanette Allis Bastian, “Flowers for Homestead: A Case Study in Archives and Collective Memory.” The American Archivist 72 (Spring/Summer 2009): 113-132; Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2, no. 1-2 (2002), 87-109; Lorena Gautherau, “Decolonizing the Digital Humanities: Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage,” last accessed 18 April 2018; Trevor Owens, “Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices,”, last accessed 18 April 2018; Andrew Prescott, “Digitizing the Historical Record,” Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production,, last accessed 18 April 2018.

3Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), esp. 26-27, 52-53. Other relevant scholarship includes: Jeannette Allis Bastian, “Reading Colonial Records Through an Archival Lens: The Provenance of Place, Space and Creation,” Archival Science 6, nos. 3-4 (2006), 267-284; Donna Holmes, “Passive Keepers or Active Shapers: A Comparative Case Study of Four Archival Practitioners at the End of the Nineteenth Century,” Archival Science 6, nos. 3-4 (2006), 285-298; Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape.” The American Archivist 74, no. 2 (2011): 600-63; Alexandrina Buchanan, “Strangely Unfamiliar: Ideas of the Archive From Outside the Discipline,” in The Future of Archives and Recordkeeping: A Reader, edited by Jennie Hill, (London: Facet Publishing, 2011), 38-45; Francis X. Blouin, Jr., and William G. Rosenberg, Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Kit Hughes, “Appraisal as Cartography: Cultural Studies in the Archives.” The American Archivist 77, no. 1 (2014): 270-296.

4“Report of John Howland,” 1 October 1822, Correspondence and reports, 1822-1838, Vol. 59 (aka I): 5, Rhode Island Historical Society Archives, Rhode Island Historical Society (Providence, Rhode Island); “Stated Meeting, May 4, 1847,” Proceedings of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1847, 60-61.

5Lyman H. Butterfield, “Introduction,” Adams Family Correspondence, (7 vols., Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1963-2005), I:R34-R38, Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed. C. James Taylor, (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007),; North American Women’s Letters and Diaries, Alexander Street Press,;

6Jennifer Rutner and Roger C. Shonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians,” Ithaka S+R, 2012.

7 Update as of 2018: back issues of the American Archivist are now available through JSTOR. The overall situation remains the same in that searches across JSTOR or Project Muse (a similar repository of journal back issues) are limited to artificially created bodies of research and inherently less comprehensive than searches across broadly indexed databases such as America History & Life, Historical Abstracts, MLA Periodicals, or across Google Scholar and equivalent web or discovery-based products.