A Q&A by Melissa Gordon
Kathryn Hudja is an assistant curator for the Performing Arts Archives and Upper Midwest Literary Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries Archives and Special Collections.
MG: I am so curious about the John Berryman papers! Are you able to share an approximate number of people who visit this archive yearly? Are there any immediate plans to make his papers available online?
KH: Berryman’s archives are perhaps one of our most well-used collections. Manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, teaching notes, photographs, and books from Berryman’s personal library became part of the Upper Midwest Literary Archives not long after the poet’s death. In the past year, we had approximately twenty different researchers use the collection. About half of those researchers had questions answered via email, while the other half visited the archives in person, sometimes for weeks at a time. Unfortunately, there are no immediate plans to digitize the entire collection, mainly due to barriers to digitization such as permissions, time, and resources.
MG: In a conversation I had with you previously, you mentioned archives being a great place for initial discovery. I have recalled [your words] many times when thinking about archival research. Can you expand on this idea of “initial discovery”?
KH: My first job working with archives wasn’t really your typical archivist job. I had just finished my graduate degree in music, wondering what I would ever do with my life now, when I stumbled upon a temp job with a musical theater company. They needed an office assistant to do some organizing at their studio space. Though I didn’t know it at the time, what they really needed was an archivist—I soon found myself arranging and describing thirty years of theater history in the form of programs, scripts, scores, administrative records, and so much more. One day, I stumbled across a torn sheet of scratch paper with a name and some monetary figures scribbled on it. I asked the director what it was, and if I could toss it. When he told me it was an invoice for the babysitter they had hired when on tour, my mind began to spin. This tiny artifact, seemingly meaningless, actually meant so much. It illustrated the values of the theater company, and told the story of the artists employed on tour in a way that a simple program or script could never do. This is initial discovery at its best—that moment, or object, that propels your thinking and research in new and exciting directions. It’s part of what makes working with archives and special collections so unique.
MG: What kinds of projects do people typically contact you about when they request access to different collections? I’m curious about the kind of research conducted within archives.
KH: Researcher needs truly run the gamut. Many of our researchers are preparing for scholarly publication or dissertations. Another large group includes collection donors themselves who are trying to track down a lesson plan, contract, script, or prompt book. Poets, playwrights, designers, and theater artists use the archives to understand the artistic process or for inspiration for new work. I’ve also encountered researchers doing genealogical research, searching for evidence of a parent who once took a class with John Berryman or a grandparent who used to perform with the local orchestra. Once, I had a researcher request handwriting samples from a collection—I later found out it served as an inspiration for a tattoo!
MG: Many collections all over the world are being preserved digitally. More and more collections become available online, making it easier for the public to access information contained in collections. What do you think is “lost” in a digital experience versus one that requires a person be physically present with materials in an archive?
KH: The physicality of the object is one aspect that is definitely lost in digitization—the texture of the paper, the pressure of the pencil. And many people experience a very physical connection to the past when handling an original World War II poster, sifting through a 100-year old scrapbook, or holding an early draft of their favorite poem in their hands.
Personally, I feel like the biggest loss through digitization is the serendipity of discovery. Searching for digital content can be relatively easy, but it’s much harder to replicate the experience of sitting down with a box and paging through it, folder by folder, sheet by sheet. It’s the difference between walking the stacks at your local library versus searching the Internet—sometimes you don’t know what you need until its right in front of you!
Read the second part of the interview with Kathryn Hudja regarding digitizing collections.