Collaboration in the Archive: Finding, Shaping, and Disseminating Stories from a Missionary Writer's Network

Article excerpt

Sarah Ruffing Robbins and Ann Ellis Pullen's Nellie Arnott Writings on Angola, 19051913: Missionary Narratives Linking Africa and America recently earned Honorable Mention for the SSAWW Edition Award, which was established to honor excellence in the recovery of American women writers.

A familiar portrait of archival research depicts a lonely task performed in quiet, musty spaces, as the solitary researcher seeks to commune with the past while interpreting materials cataloged long ago by some unnamed, unseen collector. For instance, in Jill Lepore's romantic and compelling account of "Historians Who Love Too Much," an opening image positions the scholar-author sitting alone "in the crisply air-conditioned Special Collections reading room at the Amherst College Library, stroking Noah Webster's hair," with the sole relationship highlighted that between a single scholar and her long-dead subject (129). In fact, however, as our own shared experiences attest, most archival scholarship is actually quite collaborative. Accordingly, in this essay we revisit multiple dimensions of collaboration involved in our critical edition of Nellie Arnott's Writings on Angola, 1905-1913 and still supporting our ongoing work on Arnott's authorship within the context of larger cultural movements. Undergirding this analysis are contributions from a growing chorus of voices describing the social nature of archival studies, including several essay collections and earlier accounts published in Legacy. (1) By joining such reports, we hope to encourage others who are beginning archival projects to embrace collaboration as a powerful strategy for recovering women writers of the past.

Taking a self-consciously feminist collaborative approach has been particularly appropriate for studying Arnott, since she was herself embedded in a highly gendered cooperative enterprise through service as a Congregational missionary in Angola (then Portuguese West Africa) for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (AscFm). Arnott was part of a network of women, at home and abroad, participating in a worldwide movement. Thus, her personal archive, scattered across disparate spaces and contained in a variety of textual forms, tells both a personal and a social story. Like the research subjects recommended in Legacy's 2002 "Archive Survival Guide," Arnott would not be classified today as a famous figure, even though she was well known to the niche readership of Congregational women's mission magazines. In line with the pattern described by Jennifer Bernhardt Steadman and her coauthors Elizabeth Engelhardt, Frances Smith Foster, and Laura Micham, Arnott's story is more of "interrelations and connections" than of "pioneering" (232, 231), so recovering her writing affirms their premise that feminist scholars should resist research's traditional emphasis on "the 'only' or 'first' in their fields" as too often reinscribing "women's exclusion" (231). Arnott's experiences follow that pattern, for to the extent they are retrievable they offer a window into larger trends associated with whole groups of women. She was, in a word, typical. Yet, ironically, the very features that make Arnott an ideal representative writer, operating in a broader social network, sometimes made it difficult for us to move forward with our first publishing project about her. Fortunately, we were able to counter those occasionally discouraging forces through collaboration, as has recently been urged by archival researchers such as Lisa Mas-trangelo and Barbara L'Eplattenier. (2)

Our collaboration took different forms at progressive stages in our research. Initially, finding our subject linked our own long-standing research partnership to a more serendipitous yet crucial connection with an experienced archival librarian. Then, digging deeper into our subject's personal past and its connections with institutional histories involved us as collaborators with other scholars, students, and members of Arnott's family. …