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Looking to history to learn about the present: A student’s experience conducting archival research 

When I applied for the exhibitions and curation internship, I was drawn to the description that the intern would be conducting research for their assigned project. Most of my research this semester has focused on finding reports, newspaper articles, or notes in digital and physical archives that I hoped would help me learn more about UT’s relationship with the earth mound on the Agricultural Campus. After doing this research, I have a better understanding of that history, but I also feel more competent doing archival work and appreciate that it allows people to access histories. I’ve also realized that listening to histories is a rewarding task but that most times, I’ll have more questions than answers. 

Twelfth Annual Report of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Tennessee, 1899, UT Libraries Special Collection

I thought that archival work would be straightforward and clear-cut. I was mistaken, and I didn’t think that I’d become emotionally invested in the research (a benefit and a drawback). I felt strongly about the histories of disrespect, desecration, and proliferation of misinformation around Indigenous spaces; I wanted to feel confident reporting on UT’s relationships with the mound in the 19th and 20th centuries. That personal investment pushed me to be flexible and creative, but it also made me feel that the only way to do justice to the project was to provide my supervisors with concrete, straightforward answers–which I didn’t have. I struggled to feel confident and continued to ask myself these questions: what does it mean if I can’t find answers? what do answers look like in archival research? will I feel satisfied if the most that I can find is circumstantial knowledge, be it highly circumstantial? As my work winded down, I realized that archives don’t provide answers. Rather, researchers listen to the relationships that materials have amongst each other and weave stories that are grounded in historical and cultural context. Knowing that the work on the mound won’t stop with my report made that uncertainty easier to acknowledge and accept. 

The Special Collections Reading Room located in Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee

Another question with which I continued to grapple was what does it mean if UT hasn’t appeared to retain these records, at least in the places where they’d be most accessible? Because archives are built by people with values and motivations that affect which materials are preserved, they aren’t complete representations of what was happening at a place or time. I still struggle with the possibility that aside from photographs and a couple of reports from Special Collections, Pendergrass, and departments’ archives, UT has retained very few materials related to the earth mound. If it weren’t for other archives (like the archive for the Tennessee Department of Archaeology), my overview of that history would be more incomplete. Not only am I trying to find materials, I’m also trying to find the best places to find those materials. I’ve realized that while archives are impressive repositories of knowledges and stories, they’re manned by people, so they’re imperfect and incomplete. 

My work at McClung has been geared toward a final report, but in the process of writing it, I’ve also realized my interest in archival methodologies. As someone interested in how people make and communicate meaning through physical objects, looking at and holding archival materials is fun, but having the opportunity to learn more about a material’s place in history while holding it is more fun. For example, for my second visit to Special Collections, one of the materials I requested was a manual of field and laboratory techniques from archaeology in the 1950s. Had I looked at this manual online, I wouldn’t have gotten to hold it, see the paper yellowed from age, feel its bindings and thread, and physically flip through the text. Even if I can’t see the object physically, digital archives, like UT’s SCOUT (Special Collections Online at UT), provide access to the general public so that more people can access histories. 

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned through this opportunity at McClung is that archival methods aren’t just for history students, history projects, or researchers with lots of experience. Any research about people, places, and/or events can very well benefit from investigating cultural contexts or change over time. The more work that I do in the archives, the more that I’ve practiced listening and being flexible, humble, open to learning, and being patient–all skills that I know that I’ll use for future research opportunities. Even though archival work focuses on that which has occurred in the past, there is so much that us students and researchers can take from the archives that enrich the work that we and others are doing in the present. In the video below, archivist Dominque Luster discusses the importance of archives in uplifting marginalized voices in her TED Talk. 

Spring 2022 Curatorial Intern Stella Takvoryan

This blog post was written by Spring 2022 Curatorial Intern Stella Takvoryan. Stella is a senior majoring in English and linguistics with a history minor. She plans to graduate in December 2022 and pursue graduate school the following year. Her research interests include rhetoric and notions of Indigenous spaces.