Student Archival Investigations, Part I

Guest author: Tarez Samra Graban, Associate Professor of English and Honors Teaching Scholar

Florida cannot develop its parks too rapidly or conserve its attractiveness too zealously.

Governor LeRoy Collins, Dec. 1960

During American Archives month, the 17 students enrolled in HUM 2937/IDH 3109 Sustainable Public Discourse embarked on an archival investigation that invited them to browse a constructed “collection” of items related to Florida’s conservation discourse. Our goals with this investigation were three-fold.

First, after 8 weeks of engaging with various theoretical frameworks related to sustainability, pre-selected case studies, and invited guest panelists, I wanted students to enjoy the freedom of exploring FSU Special Collections & Archives for remnants of sustainable discourse that were much closer to home. Archives represent an important yet oft-overlooked sphere for public and private knowledge-making, and browsing is an often underrated practice of intellectual discovery in academic settings that are typically guided by constraining agendas. Yet, as a practice, archival browsing provides a unique opportunity for students to apply course concepts while also discovering new questions and problems.

Second, I had hoped students might find hidden and explicit sociocultural agendas in the materials that they browsed, learning more about the different political and moral justifications that have historically driven conservation, preservation, and development decisions in the state of Florida. While there was a formal assignment attached to this browsing—a critical essay based on a subset of materials that each student chose to examine further—students were invited to provide their own take on what they observed, i.e.,appeals to ecological diversity, arguments for environmental exploitation, reports on converting a wilderness into an agricultural economy, and the politics of preparing for and responding to natural disasters.

Third, and ultimately, I wanted students to be able to study the archival collection as discourse, witnessing how actual communities debated and exchanged ideas, transforming them for both expert and non-expert audiences and publics; how real interlocutors presented themselves and the issues they cared about, assigning responsibility and blame; and how archival materials both enacted and resisted local culture and cultural constructs.

Under the generous direction of Krystal Thomas, FSU’s Digital Archivist, artifacts in the Conservation Collection were digitized in Summer and Fall 2020, in preparation for last year’s section of this course, when students could only access the collection remotely. This year, having returned to the physical classroom, we were able to work in the brick-and-mortar archives while also interacting with electronic artifacts. Working in dual modalities allowed us to read around in the broader containers that housed our selected artifacts, and to examine the digitized copies more closely for unique characteristics and essential metadata. It was the best of both worlds.

After a day or two of browsing the collection, becoming initiated to best practices in the archives, and completing exploratory exercises, each student selected a set of artifacts to examine through the lens of one or more of our theoretical frameworks. The materials students browsed ranged from letters to photographs to newsreels to official documents. Depending on their interests, students analyzed reports from the Everglades National Park Commission, perused plans for the development of Florida’s “Moving Picture City,” discovered Jewell Genevieve Cooper’s reflections on her experiences at Camp FLASTACOWA, compared Thomas LeRoy Collins’s 1936 commencement address to his 1960 dedication of Florida’s first underwater park at Key Largo Coral Reef, or sifted through Mary Lou Norwood’s reportage on fish and wildlife restoration and the elimination of predatory hunting in the state.

We spent several days in the archives as students compared notes with one another, asked questions of the archivists, reported on their in-progress findings, and drafted their essays, entertaining such theoretical, conceptual, and/or personal questions as the following:

  • How do certain ideas about agricultural economy and/or agricultural progress potentially connect to, or trouble the connection between, nature and the environment?
  • What evidence do my documents provide that conservation discourse is unifying or consensus-bringing? That it is dissonant or divisive? That it is tied more to ends than means, or more to means than ends?
  • From what I can tell, is conservation in Florida justified more by historical events or by future hope? More of a domestic concern than an international concern?
  • How are underrepresented individuals or groups represented in the materials I examine, if they are at all?
  • How is “place” reflected in the documents I have chosen? Is it the result of certain conservation ideals, or is it the source of a broader social problem that must be solved? Are places being revered and celebrated, or revised and reincarnated as something different?
  • What seems to be the role or function of “the conservationist” in my documents? Is that role/function linked more to decision maker, problem solver, resource provider, or something else?
  • Every collection has a controversy. What’s the controversy in my documents? What kinds of arguments are being made, and what shape do those arguments take?
  • What interests me the most about this collection: the arguments made, the evidence used to justify those arguments, the scientific basis, the social basis, the related artifacts, the conversations about the topic, the media representation, the photographic representation?

Their resulting essays were insightful across the board. Working with materials that are over half a century old, and thus contextually distant from our own experiences, can be challenging. Yet, I was very  proud of how students negotiated this task. They made generative and mature discoveries, carefully observing the implied agents, arguments, and situations in their selected documents without assuming intentionality or falling into representational traps.

Four students from the class have offered excerpts of their findings, which reflect how they and their classmates drew apt connections, not only across materials within the same collection, but also across collections at FSU. These will be shared in two blog posts to be published over the next two weeks.

Special thanks go to Kristin Hagaman, Krystal Thomas, and Rory Grennan for their contributions to the processing, digitization, and description of our “collection” in 2020; to Krystal Thomas for collaborating with us again in 2021; and to Elizabeth Dunne, Stuart Rochford, and Abigail Youngblood for their gracious assistance during our days in the Bradley Reading Room.

Published by Krystal Thomas

Digital Archivist at Florida State University

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