Friday, November 20, 2009

The "Chesapeake School" past, present, and future

In June of 1974 a small conference sponsored by the Maryland State Archives entitled grandly "The First Conference on Maryland History" was held at St. John's College in Annapolis. It was meant to be a tribute to the long time State Archivist, Morris Radoff, and it contained some of the first published essays from what came to be known as the "Chesapeake School." Under the leadership of Lois Carr, an interactive group of young scholars, meeting almost daily at the Archives were making good use of the records that Dr. Radoff, Gust Skordas, Phebe Jacobsen, and others, had so carefully preserved and made accessible in the Memorial Hall of Records. At that time they were mostly colonial era records, principally court and probate gathered from the courthouses around the state after they had been 'discovered' through the vast inventory project called the Historical Records survey, a part of the first national stimulus package devised by the Roosevelt administration to give jobs to what would be called unemployed arts and sciences majors today.

Other conferences would follow, mostly sponsored by the Institute of Early American History at Williamsburg, including the one at which a summary of these remarks was given entitled The Early Chesapeake: Reflections and Projections.

By way of introduction it should be pointed out that the Cheaspeake School was not really about defining a region or even sub-regions of study, nor was it solely about what could be learned about the life styles of the not so rich and famous of the 17th and 18th century Chesapeake. It was about an extensive, energetic intellectual collaboration and interactive dicussion about community. The long lunches in the late 60's and through much of the first half of the 1970s at St. John's commons, and the frequent late night dinners that bored our wives, husbands, and significant others to death as we debated Harris's theories of generational changes, were about how best to make sense of the detail of the records so well cared for and accessible at the Archives. In all this intellectual synergy, Lois Carr was the heart and soul.

Much has been accomplished over the last 35 years in awaking scholars and the public to the wide range of topics that can be addressed by the surviving record, not only that which is on paper, but also what that paper tells us about what is found in the ground. It is important, however to add a note of caution and, what I hope is inspiration for the future.

I perhaps should re-title my comments "The Devil is in the Details of Preserving and Making Accessible the Records" so essential to the future work of the Chesapeake School and those informed and inspired by it.

What was done in the past built on the first stimulus package, the capital funds and salaries provided by the Works Progress Administration that built Archives (including the National Archives and in part the Maryland Hall of Records) and staffed the most extensive inventory of record resources ever undertaken in the United States. Out of that effort came the first generaton of Archivists incuding Morris Radoff and Gust Skordas. We need part of the present stimulus package today, if Archives on and off the Web are to survive.

The Present is exciting with regard to building public interest and confidence in the need to fund and make accessible the Archival record. The future of historical research is on and through the web linked to such extraordinarily popular public exhibits as Written In Bone which combines the best of documentary and archaeological research into a public draw unlike anything its creators expected. Go see it.

The Future for the institutions caring for the records behind such exhibits and the associated virtual reality on the web, is not bright, unless we find ways to convince the public that you can't have exciting exhibits and on-line virtual reality without a sustainable environment upon which those exhibits and those virtual reality worlds are based. It costs money in staff and space to put resources into electronically accessible form, and to sustain it there. It costs money in staff and space to maintain, describe, and make accessible archival series such as the probate records on which so much of the Chesapeake School early work depended.

That underlying superstructure of sources currently accessible and yet to be accessed is in danger of disappearing, if not altogether, in large measure, especially as it relates to electronic access. A major collection depository in Maryland has just reduced its hours to two days a week, let all of it staff related to education, record description, and web maintenance go, is thinking of selling off it s collections, and backing away from making any more of what it has known and available on the web.

The Maryland State Archives just underwent severe budget cuts amounting to nearly 25% of its operating funds (ALL of which are salaries--we have no direct appropriations for papers, pencils, computers, etc.-- we have to earn income for all of that). If we did not have a reasonably stable source of income this year (that source too was raided by budget transfers this week to the tune of half the monies in the fund), we too would be in the process of closing down.

What then can be done to shore up the collapsing infra-structure so essential to research, writing and interpreting the history of the Chesapeake Region, however defined?

1) perhaps institute tithing (10%) to your favorite archives (as long as it is the Maryland State Archives) and (as some have just now reminded us of the median age of this panel) estate planning in which your favorite archival repository gets a share

2) get your departments and libraries to support Archives directly through subsidies for on-line access. Don't let them just down load and forget. We would be happy to have sattellite servers (we have them now at a local university) that duplicate our holdings, but help pay for the cost not only of maintaining them, but for the addition of resources over time

3) help us build a stronger base of support from the public for direct tax dollars to Archival and Archaeological repositories (like the Maryland State Archives and Patterson Park) who could and do share facilities for more than their 'own' collections.

The key to the future of access to the archival and archaeological record is greater public support for direct allocation of public and private funds for the care, maintenance, and accessibility of Archives and Archaelolgical collections. We need all the help we can get in that regard.

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