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DC ASB 2008 Tell-All Blog: Days 4, 5, 6, and 7

We're back in Ann Arbor. I'd intended to keep more of a running blog over the week but as I mentioned previously, this was a very, very busy week!

Still, for those of you who went on ASB this year and want to relive it or for those of you who are just curious about the experience, I'd like to cover some of the last few days in this final blog post.

One of the questions I had going into this was how much work we could really accomplish in a week. The answer is A LOT. I was fortunate to be working with a team of students (four of us in all) and by the end of our five days at the Smithsonian NMAH Archives Center, we had taken an incredible quantity of minimally processed photos and documents and given them the love they had been denied since their arrival at the Smithsonian 15 years ago. Through our efforts, researchers will soon be able to access (physically and intellectually) papers that document the experience of early 20th century Arab immigrants in the United States. In the process, we learned some incredible stories about the people whose papers we handled – and really, for an archivist, stories are what form the heart of our profession. I can't stress enough how beneficial this experience was to me in preparing me to work as part of a team of archivists.

This week was also about discovering the city. Washington DC, you might be surprised, is not warm in February! At least that was a surprise to me. I packed two pairs of shorts but I don't think the temp got much above 50 at any point. Weather aside, the city has many things to recommend it. I chose not to do any of the normal "tourist" things associated with a trip to DC (the contrarian in me) but I did a lot of walking around and eating out. The massive architecture of the federal buildings and monuments is impressive, but even the residential side streets have treasures hidden here and there. After a few days of never quite knowing where I was, the streets even started to make sense, and I began to understand the metro subway. It doesn't sound like much but you have to remember I was born in a barn. Unlike in some large cities, in DC, I never felt overwhelmed. By the end of a week I even felt somewhat at home despite the lack of barns. The Harrington, I'll say again, was phenomenal and did feel like a home away from home (especially since the entire second floor was "taken over" by SI students).

On a less positive note, there are some racial undercurrents at play in the city that don't show up in the tourist literature. We stopped into an Irish Bar one evening to get a drink. The bar was packed – several hundred people – 99% of them (from appearances, anyway) white. Outside the same bar were a dozen men of color, asking for money. This division was repeated in other areas of the city. DC has a very diverse population, but I wonder to what extent people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds have learned to live together there? I heard a report on the way back to Ann Arbor on NPR, pointing out that black residents of DC felt that they were being displaced as a direct result of intentional gentrification by city planners and real estate investors. Community centers were being turned into pricey lofts, schools shut down, and so forth, essentially forcing underprivileged segments of the population out of the district into peripheral areas. This type of "re-segregation" is I suppose not uncommon in large cities, but seeing it up close in our nation's capital was a little disheartening.

Back to ASB. Work and city aside, this was also an incredibly entertaining week socially. People I barely knew before we left were new friends by the time we got back, and I gained a deeper connection with people I thought I knew. The week felt a little bit like "The Breakfast Club." We were a diverse group of "misfits," (of the academic kind) each with our own peculiarities, thrown together for a time with little choice but to find out more about one another. Lack of sleep, a little liquor here and there, and an amalgamation of shared experiences inspired some truly memorable conversations and some nights to remember (or forget)!

I mention lack of sleep but at this point I'll confess, I went to sleep at 6:30 on Thursday evening and didn't get up until 8:30 the next day – 14 hours straight baby! Archiving is hard work. And I needed the extra sleep to handle Friday night's "going-home" party; don't ever, ever let anyone tell you that archivists don't know how to have a good time…

All for now, Bill C.

Posted by kkowatch at March 4, 2008 03:41 PM

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