Vice Presidential Archives?

Monday’s visit to the Vice Presidential Archives was fascinating, to say the least. When the curator took us down into the archive itself, it seemed fairly casual and unsecured to me. There was a seemingly very small and unconcerned security staff, and the archive seemed a bit disorganized.

This theory was confirmed when we entered the rare documents room and I saw the way in which the documents were stored, as well as the way they were handled by the curator. I was shocked by how much reverence the curator evidently held for the documents themselves, in contrast with the reckless abandon with which he handled the documents. While I am aware of the fact that the climate here is much different in the states, and therefore fewer precautions need to be taken to protect documents, I was appalled to see the curator handling the documents, which were hundreds of years old, with his bare hands, and fairly nonchalantly flipping through the incredibly fragile pages. Additionally, many of the loose documents such as letters were not even in page protectors, but rather just stored freely in cardboard boxes.

I was even more shocked when he pointed out the constitution, which was in a case. However, it was being directly lit by the overhead lights in the room, which to me appeared to just be normal florescent bulbs. Finally, when he began to show us the two world heritage documents and treated them with equally little caution, I was truly floored.

It was very interesting to me to see the difference in how we in the US treat our “precious documents” and how they are treated here at the national archive. I tend to think the way we preserve documents in the States is in some ways superior, but I also realize that the differences could be due to a disparity in the importance we attribute to pieces of paper. In many ways, I do think how we treat documents or other symbols in the US can be a bit unhealthy, and I would be interested to discover what archivists in Bolivia would think about our document preservation procedures.

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  1. The experience of being in “the vault” at the congressional archives can be a jarring one. But I’d think about taking a step back from our own assumptions and looking at things a little more critically. The documents weren’t really stored in plain sight, they had been brought out for us specifically. And while normally a curator should’ve handled the documents with gloves (as you were made to do when you worked with them), the main archivist (Don René) was very careful (and notice he didn’t let any of you touch the pages!). It’s also fair to say he doesn’t handle those things on a daily basis.

    But this raises an interesting point that I had hoped to talk about, but didn’t have much of a chance. What does it say about our position of “privilege” (as Americans) that a random group of college students would even be allowed in such a place, and have the red carpet (metaphorically) rolled out for them? What does that say about our perceived status (and the possible animosities that engenders) that a fairly important person would go out of his way to accommodate us as a group? Or, the flip side, what are the odds that a group of college students on a tour of the country would be allowed beyond the “tourist” section of the National Archives in DC?

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