Animals in the Archives Symposium

I encountered two animals in the archive my first day conducting research this summer.  The first was a mouse.  As I opened my very first box from a collection in Pennsylvania, pulled by the archivists for my viewing pleasure, I happened upon some torn paper.  A loose scroll was shredded.  As I lifted it for inspection, white pieces fell from it like confetti.  I panicked.  The archivists on staff took the matter very seriously, as they concluded a mouse had made a nest in this box.  We scrambled together to make sure the other twelve boxes I pulled from this collection were in good condition, finding dust and pests had inhabited some (not all!) boxes for some time and caused some damage.  Save for the scroll of paper, nothing else was lost to the collection.  But, it took my request for a series that had been in storage for several decades to reveal its condition (and its nonhuman inhabitants!).

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The usual wear and tear of early 20th century archival materials.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016.

That same day I flipped through the pages of a scientist’s journal.  His handwriting was mesmerizing.  I loved reading about the precise days and times this early 20th century chemist met with a veterinarian to make sure the calves he bought for experiments were healthy.  And there they were at the middle of the journal – pictures of these calves!  I squealed with delight to find the glossy black and white images accompanied by the beautiful handwriting.

These are two of many ways an historian or archivist can come to animals in the archives, and this barely scratches the surface of experiences and interactions.  This was evident in the papers and roundtables organized for the University of Pennsylvania symposium, Animals in the Archives.  The two day event took place from October 27th to 28th, bringing together historians, librarians, archivists, and even scientists (to a degree) to discuss interactions in the archive similar to the ones I had this summer.  The stories shared ranged from the recognition of animals as material (parchment, book binding, taxidermy) to animals as subjects in film narratives, photographs, and rhetoric.  Below are my personal “take aways” from this event as a budding historian of animals.

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A film screening of Matto Grosso, The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931) launched the beginning of this symposium.  Housed within the Penn Museum’s archives, the film is known as one of the first non-fiction films to incorporate animal sounds, according to film specialist Kate Pourshariati.  This is due in part to the rapidly changing technologies of the time – when explorers could enter the field with various kinds of equipment to document visual and auditory material from a given area.  Many different kinds of animals were featured in the film and included both wild Brazilian animals and domesticated “Old World” species.  The story told by the film producers was one of science and friendship: the explorers collecting animal specimens for research purposes with the help of the indigenous groups of Matto Grosso.

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Matto Grosso postcard from Penn’s Matto Grosso film website.

During a reflective roundtable discussion, Rosanna Dent provided some useful context about the history and area of Matto Grosso.  She noted how approaching the film as an artifact trying to achieve the “authentic travel narrative” reveals much of the intent behind this piece.  The back-and-forth between “authenticity” and “natural-ness” of the interactions between both humans and nonhumans was particularly striking to me – as many of the moments with animals could not be entirely staged in the film.  Carolyn Fornoff made the important nod to colonialism in the narrative, and Rahul Mukherjee reflected on how human identity is made through various interactions with animals, staged or not in the film.  Themes of extinction, creation and captivity (Noah’s Ark), and the difficulties in historicizing racism resonated with the crowd and affected the next day’s conversations.

The next day of the symposium demonstrated the multidisciplinary fortitude of taking animal material in archives seriously.  Bruce Holsinger outlined his most recent book project focused on animal skin – parchment – in the archives and his interaction with medieval texts and contemporary scientists to get at the significance of the medium in the past and today.  Iris Montero mapped the presence of hummingbird bundles in various types of archival material – making a case for the “pre-Columbian” archive.  To her, both memories and myths were materialized in these nonhuman animal artifacts.  Animal material, the question of its significance to understanding historical moments, and the question to archivists as to why material is collected and kept resonated in the other talks.   Rebecca Woods’s paper on Australian wool samples, Nigel Rothfel’s attention to elephant skins, and the “Materiality” roundtable, including both archivists and researchers, touched on these concerns.  We encountered issues of ethics in anthropodermic books, logistics in keeping taxidermy mice, and challenges in cataloging multi-species relationships: as insects and the plants they consumed leave DNA footprints on textual materials.

The last speaker, Neel Ahuja, addressed moments when animals are discussed in documents, and the different ways these moments could be interpreted by historians.  His example demonstrated that the implications of such documents were so political in certain places and time periods that it often becomes difficult for the historian to disentangle lived experience from political agenda – particularly when trying to “get at” the animal.  The presentation addressed animal welfare issues with milking cattle in late 19th century India, when legal documentation was ambiguous and hesitant to cite methods of milking that were banned based on their cruelty and ineffectiveness.  Ahuja made the case of looking at such material with hybridity in mind: the reality of the cruelty in these methods for certain historical actors, and the ban implicating something specific about colonial power and the rationalization of industrial methods of milking over pastoralist ones.  Certain human-animal interactions that took place for hundreds of years were suddenly re-contextualized as inappropriate through legal documentation.  But these interactions were also rhetorically avoided in the writing; perhaps illustrating a similar experience of getting to animal material in an archive without much written documentation of the life/experience/interactions the body had while still alive.

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Harriet Ritvo’s Animal Estate (1987).

Harriet Ritvo, who arguably jump-started the animal history movement with her book Animal Estate (1987), provided some helpful closing comments to the event.   The two big questions participants seemed to be grappling with included 1) What are animals like?  and 2) What are archives like?  When historians engage with animals in the archives they are forced to recognize their living qualities.  Animals are not just metaphorical, even though we often approach them in this form in writings.  Animals are very real, and they were very alive before their bodies were placed in museums, libraries, or universities.  When animals are archived today, we see some difficulty in placing material objects within their context – particularly as papers become part of separate archival spaces housed away from their objects of reference.  The importance of these material objects – these animal bodies – in understanding the past is something historians and archivists need to keep in mind, and they are sources that are useful, troubling, and fantastic.

Why Academics Should Tweet More

Don’t judge me if I’m looking at my phone during an interesting lecture.  Nine times out of ten, I’m not responding to a text or flipping through my emails.  Usually when I’m on my phone, I’m live tweeting – and I wish more academics (and farmers, and companies for that matter) would tweet more.

This past month I have been immersed in a sea of academic get-togethers. I participated in an oral history workshop and two different conferences, and all had developed a hashtag for tweeters to tweet and follow conversations.  These were three truly amazing events, and for me to take the time to tweet them and live tweet some of their take-aways helped me remember the content of the talks a whole lot better.  My tweets are now archived on my Twitter page, giving me an opportunity to look back on the important moments I thought were worth tweeting.  The entire process provides an extra dimension to my overall note-taking experience.

 

I only started tweeting when I started this blog, courtesy of a friend’s suggestion.  I’m really glad I took the time to start playing around with the website and app, finding not only people to follow from my discipline and the groups of people I conduct research with, but also finding conversations between handfuls of individuals having genuine discussions in 140 characters or less.

If you are already a tweeter, I don’t need to persuade you of the benefits of tweeting in x, y, or z discipline or for x, y, or z reason.  But for those of you still hesitant to jump on the bandwagon, I’d like to outline some additional perks to academic tweeting and the possibilities that could come with regular tweeting from intellectual and professional communities.

  1. Note-taking archive

Everyone processes information in different ways, and I appreciate this fact.  Some people can sit in a lecture, listen to the lecturer, and *presto-pesto* the information is transferred into their brain.  For me to process the same lecture, I have to take extensive notes.  I then have to transcribe these notes, and read them over again to really get at what was relayed to me from the speaker.  As I mentioned, Twitter provides an extra dimension of writing notes for me with the added pressure of a public audience.  Considering how my brain works (and I assume other brains out there), this process actually allows the information to become instantly more meaningful for me to absorb: writing a note first by hand to make sure it is brief enough, then writing it in my screen (sometimes with emojis), and then publishing it for others to see.  It may sound like this takes *more* time, but in the long run actually takes *less* time for me to remember the information. Plus, as I mentioned before, everything is archived.  And this happens not only within my own Twitter page, but through the hashtags I use.  I can go back over themes in “#dairy” or “#aghist” or “#histsci” using the hashtags – seeing not only what I have written but what others have written under these key terms and topics.

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It’s nice to get “likes” and “retweets,” but sometimes tweeting is just another form of taking notes.

 

  1. Practice for precise and succinct writing

“If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”  One of my past instructors, Richard Parmentier, would press this quote on us before assigning his notoriously short assignments.  I haven’t forgotten the power of time or the power of brevity.  Writing long, complicated ideas in clear, short ways is a skill I think everyone can benefit from mastering.  Twitter is one way to practice getting good ideas out there in brief, quick, eye-catching ways but *quickly*.  I’m learning to use my words carefully, and to swap out long, jargon-y words for shorter ones in my tweets.  The 140 character limit also forces me to be creative with pictorial representations, using the emoji inventory on my phone, images from the actual lecture/event, or even popular animated files from Google’s archive to better illustrate the arguments and stories I hear.

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  1. Getting to know others and their research

Probably one of the greatest benefits of Twitter is the follow function.  Many great scholars and professionals are already on Twitter, and are constantly tweeting articles, reviews of books and journals, and even musings about their classroom and conference experiences.  I love following conversations when they blossom, particularly as people reply to a tweet that moves them.  Twitter is a great space to witness the thinking processes of individuals (if they Tweet frequent enough), as well as the many different interests we can have as an intellectual collective.  I also follow all of the major local, national, and international news sources on Twitter, and feel like I can access different kinds of information all in one forum.  Some would argue Facebook serves the same function, but the brevity of the Tweet makes this information seem more variable.

 

  1. Tweeting one conference theme while following another… in the same weekend!

This was something that happened to me while I was attending the Agricultural History Society Conference.  The conference was over the same weekend as the Three Societies meeting (HSS, BSHS, CSHPS), the Society for the History of Technology meeting (SHOT), and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS) – but I could get a glimpse into the material of each meeting following their respective hashtags.  It was actually quite a wonderful forum, and with applications like Hootsuite you can follow multiple hashtags at a time (meaning, I could follow tweets from all four of the meetings at the same time).  This only works if fellow attendees tweet what they’re experiencing, which is why I advocate for more academic tweeters to allow for larger information sharing.  Conferences also often have more than one panel happening at the same time, but through Twitter I could often catch tweets from a fellow tweeter in a panel I could not attend and still get a sense of the important content relayed at the meeting.

  1. Live tweet forums

I love live tweet forums, and this is something I don’t see many academics doing just yet.  I have to give a hand to the farmers, scholars, and interested consumers who participate in #AgChat every Tuesday night on Twitter, as they introduced me to the wonders of the live tweet forum.  Every Tuesday at 8pm, those interested in the topic can follow the #AgChat hashtag and participate by answering a series of questions from the assigned moderator that week.  Some really great conversations can come from these spaces.  The idea of dozens of individuals talking to one another from cyberspace across the country at one time on a public forum is really amazing to me – and a great space for people to advocate (or “agvocate,” as this forum so boasts) publically for the subjects they are passionate about.  I think this space is one where academics can think more about the applicability of their research.  The live tweet forum could pose as an opportunity for an academic to invite representatives from the companies, institutions, or public bases their research actively addresses or affects.  It occupies a space somewhere in-between cyber-ethnographic venture and town hall meeting, which can be very engaging and helpful for those involved.  It takes time and a good rapport to successfully develop these spaces, but they are already happening!  We just need to take the time to participate within them.

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Are you a big tweeter?  Do you have ideas for forums or hashtags that could start new public conversations – bringing in new participants (academic and otherwise)?  For example, I’m hoping to try and incorporate tweeting into my classroom discussions with undergraduates.  Or, do you use Twitter for different reasons (#GameofThrones won’t be relevant again until next season…)?  Comment below!

 

Some other websites/resources on Twitter in academia:

https://www.getacclaim.com/blog/25-interesting-observations-about-how-academics-use-twitter/

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/weird-and-wonderful-world-academic-twitter

http://savageminds.org/2013/05/08/the-academic-benefits-of-twitter/