The Digital Projects Group serves as the central source for digitizing materials from Baylor’s special collections libraries and other on-campus institutions. This puts us in the unique – and sometimes difficult – position of passing materials through our workflow that contain challenging and, occasionally, blatantly offensive content. In many instances, that content passes through the hands of our student workers and graduate assistants. And if these materials aren’t placed in their proper context, or if there are no opportunities for students to talk about the emotions and thoughts they experience when handling them, it can add an unwanted layer of discomfort and awkwardness to our work.
This potential challenge is a greater likelihood in some collections than others. You’re much less likely to see negative stereotyping or racially insensitive materials in a collection of famous Baptist sermons than you would be in a set of anti-semitic brochures collected for decades by a professor in the Department of Church-State Studies. But even seemingly innocuous collections can harbor unpleasant glimpses of the past, so it’s important to have a process in place to help our student workers – and, in some cases our researchers – process what they’re finding in our digital collections.
The Trouble With Perspective
I once heard it said that people’s historical perspective begins on the day they’re aware of their own uniqueness. In other words, it’s impossible for us to completely embrace the complex blend of social conventions, viewpoints, events and cultural touchstones that existed before we were born, as we all instinctively judge the present through the lens of how it developed from the time of our childhood up to the present day. We can intellectually grasp a concept – “People once thought illness was caused by vapors, not germs! Isn’t that funny!” – but it can be difficult to fully appreciate the internal motivations of events carried out and documented by people who lived in the past.
For a simple test of what I’m talking about, take a look at the following image and see what comes to mind.
If you were alive and aware of the world in 1963, you’ll immediately recognize this as a still from the Zapruder film, one of the most famous artifacts attached to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But for many 19-year-old undergraduate students, this may as well be a vignette from the Bayeux Tapestry for all the relevance it has on their daily life – at least as far as they’re concerned. However, if you show them an image like this …
… their perspective changes radically. The September 11, 2001 attacks occurred during their lifetime, and while they may only have been in elementary school at the time, they can tell you exactly what was happening the day they saw the Twin Towers fall, much as a Baby Boomer can pinpoint their location on the day Kennedy was shot.
The challenge of perspective is difficult enough to address with a subject as complex and nuanced as a presidential assassination or America’s worst terrorist attack, and those are events that happened within the span of living memory. But what does it look like when our students face materials created more than a half-century before their parents were born?
A surprising source of challenging content is our Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. While the entire collection contains some 28,000 pieces, the initial offerings digitized and placed online were chosen from a list of Mrs. Spencer’s own subject headings. They examine a variety of topics, but among the most important are depictions of race and cultural identity in turn-of-the-19th-century America. The original subset was dubbed The American Melting Pot Collection.
The images contain equal opportunities for offending almost every possible ethnic and racial identity group in the country. Some titles are patently offensive by modern standards.
Others are more subtle in their negative depictions.
Still others represent inaccurate or fictionalized interpretations of groups that lacked adequate means of expressing their own cultural identities in a medium like popular piano sheet music. In this piece, a woman with a bad reputation (a “good for nothing”) finds redemption by serving as a nurse during World War I.
Opportunities to Educate, Find Context
When our students and researchers come across images like these, it can be a shock to them, especially to college students who have grown up in an age of multicultural awareness and who are unused to seeing blatant racism on casual display in popular culture. In these cases, we take time to explain to them that while the material they’ve encountered may be discomforting or difficult to address, it is nonetheless a part of the historical record, and pretending it doesn’t exist will not magically negate it. Instead, we choose to present an uncensored window into our collections, allowing researchers and scholars the chance to assess each piece’s impact on our understanding of history without selectively “cherry-picking” only the materials that are safe and non-offensive.
In the handful of occasions when our students have approached us with material they find offensive, we have been quick to have honest, open discussions with them about their feelings and why we are making such materials a part of our digital collections. And in each case, they have seen the importance of including the offending piece. In fact, they often say something to this effect: “It happened in the past, and we can’t pretend it didn’t just by choosing not to scan it. We need to give people a chance to see history as it was so we can see how much things have changed for the better.”
When I hear reactions like that from students in their late teens and early twenties, it gives me great hope that we are educating a generation of scholars that sees archival resources for what they are: a collection of viewpoints, set in a fixed medium for preservation and use by future generations, by no means all-encompassing of every voice, but valuable simply for having been saved.
For the general public that accesses our collections, they may encounter wording on a collection’s landing page that spells out our Historical Context Statement. This paragraph, drafted by DPG staff and vetted all the way to the top of the university’s administrative structure, notifies users that materials they are about to view may be difficult to experience due to their content, but should be taken as examples of the time, cultures and mores that produced them. They are also informed that Baylor University “does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.”
The documentary evidence of our cultural heritage contains many wonderful treasures. Personal reflections, institutional histories, official publications and unpublished manuscripts all offer insight into the minds and souls of the people who created them. And while researchers may encounter materials that challenge their contemporary values and beliefs, the richness of the subject matter – positive and negative – is an essential element to understanding what it means to be human.