Making History

My boss at the university archive I’ve been temping at has a poster on her wall that says “Be nice to archivists. They can erase you from history.” Without a record, nothing can be proven. Especially in the age of Instagram. If it didn’t happen on camera, it didn’t happen at all.

African American students were on campus as early 1915, because that’s when the first African American man appears in pictures of the football team. And by the late 20’s, I found a Chinese (American) on the men’s wrestling team. It’s impossible to say from photographic evidence that these are the earliest men of color on the campus. I can only say “By such and such a date, at least such and such had happened.”

And that’s why it’s important to create accurate records in the present, when information seems obvious. Keep good records now, make archivists and historians happy later. It’s especially important for underrepresented populations. Underrepresented now, underrepresented forever because retroactive guessing is very difficult.

The classic example is the US census, for categories of race. Pick an Asian American group. Let’s say Indian Americans. When did they start arriving in the US? According to the census, it’s hard to tell because they were classified as white, black, other, and Hindoo from decade to decade. Keep good records now, have accurate sources later.


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