Using Archives

Want to find out more about the types of resources archives have to offer and how to use them? Jonathan Robins, a student at Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, served as an intern at the George Meany Memorial Archives during the 1999-2000 academic year. Jonathan’s goal was to write a pathfinder (or guide) to the materials available in the archives on the subject of child labor. In the piece below, he talks about what you can expect to find in an archives and how to use what you find.

Last fall I began an internship as part of a senior year program at Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County, Maryland. I chose to work at the George Meany Memorial Archives (GMMA), the archives of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). I had never been into an archives before the internship, so I had to learn all I could about how an archives operates.

At first I thought an archives was similar to a library. In the average library, you can walk up to a computer catalog, type in the subject you want to find books about, and then go find the books on shelves. Archives are quite different. Instead of books, archives contain records that indicate what a person or organization has done and how they did it. Records are everything from memos and reports to newspaper clippings and pamphlets. These records are not treated like books in a library. Records are usually stored in boxes, sorted by their source, such as the creator or donor of the records. You will not be allowed to walk in the “stacks” where the boxes are stored. Instead you will ask an archivist to get the files you want for you. You will probably be supervised while reading over materials, as many items are unique and fragile. Records can not be checked out like library books. You will have to make copies if you want to take something home.

So how do you figure out which records you want to look at? This is where archivists and items called finding aids come in. When you go to the archives, talk with an archivist. Have some specific questions about your project’s subject. Be knowledgeable enough to discuss what information would be pertinent to your project. After talking, ask to see the finding aids. Finding aids are often accessible by computer terminal, but sometimes they exist only in printed formats.

Finding aids are tools that describe the records in the archives, providing background information such as the time period covered and a brief history of the organization or person who created the records. A finding aid will describe the contents of the collection and may identify important items. However, a finding aid is not a table of contents for the archives’ holdings. With a book, you can look up a name in the table of contents or index to find out where to look for information about it. Using a finding aid will require you to look for events, issues, and important dates related to a name to find information, usually in several different collections. Using a finding aid will help you locate material to look at and save time by directing you to specific files in a collection that have useful information.

During my internship at the GMMA, I was given the task of listing particularly useful items regarding child labor. I had never done any archival research beforehand, yet I managed to find hundreds of useful items. Before I did any actual work with the records, my supervisor sent me to the GMMA’s library. There I did considerable background reading about child labor. I had a general sense of what issues and events were involved in child labor from history classes, but reading helped identify specific areas of interest. I noted things like the Child Labor Amendment, an unratified amendment from 1924, and people such as Samuel Gompers, first president of the AFL, who was vocal about stopping child labor. I then talked with my supervisor, an archivist, about the project and discussed what kinds of records existed about the subject. After that, I started looking at findings aids.

The GMMA has several different finding aids, each for a specific record group or type of media. A look at the photograph finding aid pointed me to series 1, box 7, file 5 to find pictures of children working. My search through the legislative record group was narrowed from nearly ninety cubic feet of papers to one box by using the finding aids.

So now you’ve got a few files to look at. What exactly are you looking for? Background reading is very important at this stage, too. As I searched, I saw a newspaper clipping about the “Fair Labor Standards Act,” a law passed in 1938 that restricted the work that children could do. Knowing what the headline was talking about helped me decide whether or not to read the article. It turned out to be a fairly good source of information. Knowing the facts also helps you deal with contradictory information. In the midst of anti-child labor items, I found a paper from 1935 telling people why the Child Labor Amendment should not be allowed to pass. Looking at it provided insights as to why people opposed something that I had thought of as clearly necessary. Decide on who is right after you read a contradictory item. Take note of the issues involved and the evidence on both sides of the argument.

A good way to save time during your search is to watch for repetition. I found a pamphlet in several versions and decided to skip some. Having a good knowledge of the chronology of events is also helpful for saving time when dealing with records sorted by time period. I stopped looking for files about the Child Labor Amendment once I reached files containing only information from the 1950s, as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 essentially ended the demand for a child labor amendment.

You can also use time more effectively by looking for records that catch your eye. Unusual or striking items are easy to isolate and can provide a different perspective on information than average documents. While looking through a file full of plain white pamphlets, I found one that had a political cartoon on the front. It stood out from the rest and provided a more interesting source of information than the others. Newspaper headlines, posters, cartoons and personal letters often yield a wealth of information and make for more interesting reading than typical office memos and reports.

So you have gotten a stack of documents out from the endless rows of boxes. You have read them all thoroughly and taken notes on key points. You have made copies to take home. You should have a large amount of information from a variety of sources. Now what? It’s up to you to analyze the documents and figure out how they will fit into your project.