For this weeks series post we have a project feature on Kate E. Korth. Kate is the Lead Student and Co-Leader of the Ren Cen Artifact and Historical research team. Here we look into the process of archival research and ask her a few questions about what she has been up to this summer at Wayne State University.
Archival research, one of the most important parts of our collections-based research, is the investigation of historical records from primary sources such as directories, maps, old correspondences, and photographs. This information is helpful in archaeology as lets us learn history beyond the artifact. This information – including land owner names, merchant locations, dates, etc.- enables us to associate items found with the people and businesses during the appropriate time period. Archival research enriches the overall cultural narrative of downtown Detroit prior to the 20th century.
With so many different formats (i.e. books, scrapbooks, directories) holding so many types of information, how do you direct yourself to find relevant information in archives and libraries?
“On the Ren Cen project, we started with maps and worked backward. This isn’t as straightforward as it seems, because the construction of the Ren Cen removed or reconfigured most of the streets in the area, but if we zoom out a bit we can piece the neighborhood back together. Maps sometimes mark the names of people that lived in prominent lots, but the street names are also really helpful as we can look them up in historical directories to see who lived and worked on a certain block. From there, we research the names and businesses by using the card catalogues in the archives and asking the archivists for help.”
Where does the Unearthing Detroit team do archival research?
“Samantha Malette and I started with Wayne State’s anthropology archives and Steve Demeter’s (Principal Investigator on the excavation) field notes and preliminary research. We then took a break for some artifact analysis, but we’re back to archival research now. We’re spending most of our time at the Burton Historical Collection in the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, as well as the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.”
As mentioned above archives house many different materials. Which ones do you find you use the most?
“We use a lot of letters, maps, photographs, probate records, deeds, and of course the maps and directories mentioned above. Letters can be surprisingly difficult to read because the ink is usually fading, and sometimes there are coffee rings, and spelling is not consistent. Plus, the handwriting is sometimes really bad or just not what we’re used to seeing today! Photographs are always exciting to find.”
I always have a lot of fun looking through archival material because it lets you take such a personal look into the everyday lives of people many years ago. There are always fun pictures, letters, or even newspaper clippings that show you a side of life that is much more relatable then reading a history book. With that in mind, what has been your favorite archival find?
“I recently read a letter from a young man to his mother, describing his travels to what sounds like his new apprenticeship, and he writes three full pages in one rambling sentence. His first language was French, so some of the idiosyncrasies are funny, such as when he writes, “William skoldes me verry mutch becaus I dont talk English more and study Harder and he says that I never will Improve I can spell perty well…”(1) Doesn’t that remind you of your whiny yet adorable little brother?”
Before we go, Are there any specific questions you see the Unearthing Detroit project answering?
“Right now, we’re trying to piece the neighborhood back together and create a timeline of landowners and tenants. After we get a better picture of the historical context, we can do further artifact analysis.”.”
(1)Cezar Meldrum and Mr. William Scott to Genevieve Meldrum c/o D.L. Campau Esq., December 14, 1844.
I look forward to seeing how this archival information integrates with our artifacts. We will keep you updated as we progress here and through our social media outlets. Keep an eye out for fun facts as we continue to learn more about historic Detroit and its people.
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