The Archivists come to town

Last winter I sat in Doug Erickson’s lair at Lewis and Clark College in Portland talking library work. Doug is special collections librarian there, and his office is also the home of the William Stafford Collection. In a corner sits an odd Plexiglas contraption that looks like a space module from a Buck Rogers film. In fact it is some kind of medical unit Doug picked up on EBay and refitted as a small sound studio. He uses it for the Oregon Poetic Voices project, but also puts non-poets he wants to capture into the machine.

I don’t remember whether the finger pointed at my chest was real or figurative, but I remember Doug’s admonition that archival work is “activist work,” not arcane activity conducted passively by withering librarians hiding papers on shelves for future generations. “Rich people get their stories told,” Erickson reminded. “I want your grandmother’s poems and stories.” And as incentive, he added that Lewis and Clark has the Wood Family Papers, which relate to the Nez Perce story and so to Wallowa County and the Josephy Library. He might have students interesting in coming here to work with us.

I thought a lot about that this winter. My reading of Josephy material over the last couple of years fits Erickson’s thesis well. Alvin was a meticulous researcher who wanted stories from the past that help show us truly how we got where we are and where we might be going. He loved amateur historians—the archivists who don’t know they are but keep diaries and notebooks. And he worked hard at advocacy, crafting arguments for current policy based on the sins, omissions, and good work of those in the past.

So one thing led to another, and with a few hundred dollars from the local Cultural Trust and the Soroptimists Club, we brought in two archivists from the University of Idaho last week. It was all done through the Friends of the Wallowa County Museum, but other local groups—Wallowa History Center, Maxville Heritage Center, Nez Perce Homeland Project, and our Josephy Library were all involved.

U Idaho Librarians Garth Reese and Devin Becker made an afternoon presentation in Wallowa, an evening presentation in Joseph, and met with a few of us to look at Grace Bartlett’s papers on Friday morning. The public presentations showed in outline form the hows and whys of organizing collections of personal, public, corporate, and business records so that they can be accessed and used by students and researchers. The session with four file drawers of historian Grace Bartlett papers was exciting. There’s a foot of folders on the Appaloosa horse controversy, letter exchanges with historians and Indian elders, and papers and pamphlets that Grace wrestled out of national archives—all with her own extensive notes.

The chains of events from Alvin’s finding of the Nez Perce story and coming to the Wallowas, of his meeting Grace and her writing her own book, of their collaboration on the Appaloosa writings, and, on the other side, Grace’s own coming to the Wallowas in the early 30s, meeting Horner the historian, eventually marrying Harry Bartlett, the Nez Perce horseman, and shepherding the Wallowa County Museum into existence intertwine and help make the Wallowa Country a living textbook.

And principal actors in the text are still, despite broken treaties, war, and attempts at assimilation, the Nez Perce. Almost miraculously, the Indians have been here all along, leaving with the Nez Perce War but not leaving, coming back to fish and gather, to work white farmers’ fields, to build the walls around the Joseph Cemetery at Wallowa Lake, to celebrate at Chief Joseph days and dance at Tamkaliks, and to shepherd the salmon and steelhead home.

Thanks to Alvin and Grace, Nez Perce story tellers, fishers, root-diggers, and dancers, and to the archival instincts of many, our Wallowa Country is a living history museum threaded to past and future in an increasingly seamless cloth.

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Learning to be a librarian

Learning to be a librarian

When Alvin Josephy started talking about leaving his books to Fishtrap all those years ago, I nodded and envisioned a nice addition to the Fishtrap house with shelves of books, a file cabinet or two, study carrels, and a stream of poets and historians pulling books off the shelves and making new poems and stories with their help. Over time, in conversations with Fishtrap friends and with a small grant from the Lamb Foundation, the vision gained an artist’s rendering (see top of the blog page) and an architect’s plans.

And then the real world and a recession hit, money from foundations that had seemed “ready” became impossible, and, eventually, I settled in to try to make sense of Library holdings, mission, and possibilities. I started learning to be a librarian, and envisioning the eventual physical home receded into some far off mist.

So now I wrestle with whether we finish cataloging books—or concentrate on papers and ephemera. And how do we make the information we have available? How important is a complete bibliography of Alvin’s work? And, most importantly, never mind the books—what do I do with Alvin Josephy’s legacy as historian and activist on behalf of American Indians? “Alvin, I thought you were leaving me a bunch of books, but all this?” I say to myself as he watches over my shoulder.

I talk about these things with writers, historians and library friends all the time. And just last week, had a nice meeting at Lewis and Clark College with Special Collections librarian Doug Erickson and friend Kim Stafford.

Doug’s office desk sits in a corner of the room that houses the William Stafford Collection. In the opposite corner there is an odd-shaped Plexiglas enclosure with a seat in it and wires running out of it to a stool-full of electronic gear. It was some kind of medical deal that Doug picked up on EBay for $150 and turned into a mini recording studio. Among other things, he records poets for his “Oregon Poetic Voices” project. I know a bit about that, because Fishtrap was an original partner, and you can go right to that site and hear Ursula LeGuin read poetry in 1990 at Summer Fishtrap. Try it:

But the big aha moment for me in the talk with Doug and Kim is that libraries and archives are not just collections of old dusty stuff. They are things you work with now. And Doug says that Mitt Romney was right—rich folks get their words and ideas recorded all the time. Doug wants the poems your grandma wrote—or the ones you write.

Which takes me back to Alvin looking over my shoulder. He determined to write the Nez Perce book AFTER he found the Indian voices collected by an oddball Washington rancher named Lucullus McWhorter and published by another oddball, an old fashioned freedom of the press publisher from England who found his way to, of all places, Caldwell, Idaho, and founded Caxton Press. And published Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs.

In the twelve years it took to research and write The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest, Alvin also found three remaining veterans of the Nez Perce War he could talk to, the Sohon drawings from the 1855 Walla Walla treaties, which were hidden away at the Washington State Historical Society, and other obscure stuff—revealed in the footnotes of the book (their omission the reason he always hated the abridged version of same)

So my next library project is to bring a real live archivist to town to train me and other volunteers in the ways of preserving these other voices against the time the next Alvin comes along.