Archives Power? The Role of Record-Keepers in Historical Preservation and Research

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Simone D. Horst

I recently saw this picture when my graduate advisor, a longtime library science educator, shared it on her Facebook page. I can say that as a librarian, the comic mostly rings true–one generally does not enter the library profession seeking fame and fortune. But the last word, power, gives me pause. Librarians, archivists, and all others who are given stewardship of records do have power. They have influence over historical narratives that must be given attention by both the record-keepers themselves and the people they serve. It is only through recognition of this influence that they can be held accountable and that those with whose histories they are entrusted can ensure that the preservation and access of those stories is being handled in a professional, ethical manner.

There are a number of facets to this influence, three of which Randall Jimerson explores in the introduction to his book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He opens by saying that archives can be seen as temples, prisons, or restaurants. For Jimerson, “the temple reflects the power of authority and veneration. The prison wields the power of control. The restaurant holds the power of interpretation and mediation. These represent the trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access. Archives at once protect and preserve records; legitimize and sanctify certain documents while negating and destroying others; and provide access to selected sources while controlling the researchers and conditions under which they may examine the archival record.”1

Jimerson’s first example, the temple, describes the power exerted by record-keepers in the selection process. He writes that “the very acts of selection and preservation set some records apart from others and give them heightened validity” and reminds his readers that “in the archival temple, archivists make value-laden decisions with momentous implications for the knowledge that the future will have of the past.”2  Jason Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Archivist, touched on this in his blog post “Now You’re the Institution” when he talked about the importance of addressing ‘archival silences’ by cultivating institutional collections that represent groups that have been marginalized or left out of a group’s historical records.3 Archives cannot collect everything, but an intentionality in the formation of collection development policies and in the activities of acquisition can help ensure the preservation of an historic record that makes an attempt at balance and inclusion.

Jimerson’s second example, the prison, demonstrates how archives have historically handled the preservation of records. Preservation meant maintaining the records exactly as they were when they arrived. Physical materials were kept in tightly controlled, high security spaces, with acid-free storage, climate control, and strict rules on viewing and usage. But with the advent of technology archives, libraries are being forced to reassess their methods of preservation and make decisions about the application of technology: what gets scanned and stored electronically? What formats are digital items stored in and how will archives ensure that these formats remain available five or ten years down the road as technologies change? Why digitize one collection rather than another? How do institutions maintain copyright control and security when items are shared on a platform as vast and far-reaching as the Internet? Digitization has enhanced the ability for records managers to provide access, but it also brings up difficult questions of preservation. This new frontier does not follow the pattern of how archives have historically gone about preservation, nor does it fit neatly into Jimerson’s prison narrative. It is an entirely new aspect that is allowing archives to provide more unlimited access to their collections, but also challenges the historically held beliefs of how best to preserve historic resources.

The final facet of power is access. This is Jimerson’s restaurant, where record-keepers and information-seekers come together to use and interpret historical documents. Providing patrons with access to resources is at the heart of the ethics of both the archival and library professions. The Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics states that “Although access may be limited in some instances, archivists seek to promote open access and use when possible” and the first point in the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics is “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” This is where an archivist’s power can be most plainly seen; there are many unfortunate examples of record-keepers bucking ethical codes and using their own discretion to assess whether records are fit for public consumption and withholding those they deem inappropriate. And, unfortunately, the lofty goals of living up to ethical principles of providing access can sometimes clash with more benign limits like restricted open hours, processing backlogs, and privacy rights that hinder the amount of free access the public can have to archival and library materials. Of the three facets of discussed here, this is both the easiest place for outsiders to recognize a record-keeper’s power and also the easiest place to hold records-keepers accountable.

Jimerson goes on to discuss how archives, once regarded by historians and others who use their contents as an unbiased source of materials that contained stories just waiting to be told, are now being seen for the power they have in shaping the discourse even before historical research begins. For many of us who work in these places, this power can feel uncomfortable. But power in archives and records-keeping doesn’t have to been seen as a bad thing. Jimerson states, “[O]ne challenge for archivists is to embrace the power of archives and use it to make society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just…once archivists acknowledge their professional and personal viewpoints, they can avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally.”4  He concludes by saying that “rather than hide from their power in the realm of history, memory, and the past, I hope that archivists will embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of mankind.”5 

Anabaptists and Mennonites are privileged to have a large number of institutions and groups dedicated to preserving their historical record. There have been many devoted historians, librarians, and archivists over the years who have shaped and grown the historical collections that today’s church inherits. To continue and improve upon this legacy, record-keepers, historians, church leaders, and anyone interested in the church as it was and as it can be must take an active interest in the preservation and maintenance of our shared heritage. Those who are entrusted with the stewardship of historical materials need to be aware of how all aspects of their work impacts the history being told. They must take seriously the responsibility to work ethically and morally to provide historians and researchers with the highest possible access and most complete historical record possible. Likewise, church leaders must take seriously the importance of historical records and dedicate energy and funds to their care and protection. Only then can record-keepers and historians tell the best and most complete versions of our history.

Works Cited:
Jimerson, Randall C. 2010. Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists.


  1. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives power. (Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists, 2010), 2. 
  2. Jimerson, 4. 
  3. Kauffman, Jason. “Now You’re the Institution,” Anabaptist Historians, Nov. 10, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/10/now-youre-the-institution/ 
  4. Jimerson, 185-86. 
  5. Jimerson, 3. 

“The People of God around the World”: Melvin Gingerich’s Archival World Tour

Jason B. Kauffman

On January 13, 1969, Melvin and Verna Mae (Roth) Gingerich embarked on a tour of Mennonite church communities around the world. During a period of 4.5 months the couple traveled more than 54,000 miles (“by air, train, taxi, jeep, and touring cars”) over a distance spanning five continents and twenty four different countries or territories.1 In all, their itinerary included 47 flights on 25 different airlines. The tour was commissioned by the inter-Mennonite Council of Mission Board Secretaries (COMBS) with financial support from the Historical Committee of the (old) Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).2

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich contemplate the itinerary for the 1969 archival world tour

By 1969, Gingerich had directed the archives of the (old) Mennonite Church for 22 years.3 He was also heavily involved in the Mennonite publishing world. Aside from his work as managing editor for the Mennonite Historical Bulletin and the Mennonite Quarterly Review, he was an editor and frequent contributor to several other publications including Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and the Gospel Herald. From 1955-1958, he represented the Peace Section of the Mennonite Central Committee in Japan. Gingerich’s active involvement with Mennonite institutions, his familiarity with trends in Mennonite writing and scholarship, and his experiences abroad shaped his worldview and over time he developed a keen interest in the global Mennonite Church.

Gingerich’s stated objectives for the archival world tour were to “determine the amount and nature of archival materials relating to American Mennonite missions located outside of the U.S. and Canada,” to consult with missionaries and church workers about record management practices, and to identify potential authors for the Mennonite Encyclopedia and other publications. But, for Gingerich, the trip was much more than a simple fact-finding mission. During his time abroad, Gingerich also planned to offer lectures on the important role of history in shaping the vision and identity of the global Mennonite community. He hoped that his meetings with mission workers, church leaders, and school groups would create a space for them to “examine together the Christian approach to history and to consider how historical interest could be aroused where it did not exist.”4

Such concerns became a recurring theme in his reports. After his visit with mission workers and church leaders in Argentina, Gingerich wrote:

It seems to me that perhaps my major contribution has been in making them aware of the fact that they have an obligation to witness to the rest of the church what God has been doing among them. The Bible is largely the account of God’s mighty works among His children. Much of the Old Testament was designed to review their history. The great sermons in the New Testament do the same thing. We have an obligation in our day to record and witness to this continuing history.5

Later in the trip, during a conversation with Dr. Saphir Athyal of the Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal, India, Gingerich discussed “the problem of how to get [seminary] students to feel that contemporary church history is a part of the ongoing stream of church history, directly related to past centuries of the story of God’s people.”

While educating the “younger churches” about Mennonite history was clearly part of his agenda, Gingerich was also sensitive to the local realities and traditions of the communities that hosted him.5 According to Gingerich, “the purpose of this visit to the fields was not a paternalistic one,” but rather “to encourage our brethren to share their story with the entire Christian brotherhood. We are brethren who can all share with each other and learn from each other.” As such, he felt that local Mennonite conferences should take the lead to develop “their own historians or historical committees and [to] cultivate the consciousness of their unique role in history.”

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Melvin and Verna Gingerich in Japan, Christmas 1956

Gingerich also had the intercultural awareness to recognize that not all members of the global Mennonite community transmitted and preserved history primarily through the written record. In several locations, Gingerich met with local church leaders to discuss plans for commemorating the upcoming anniversaries of their churches. In Ethiopia, he encouraged leaders from the Meserete Kristos Church to produce an account of their own history in order to tell “their own story from the Ethiopian perspective.” On other legs of the trip he also discussed the importance of recorded oral histories as a tool for preserving the life stories of early church members and leaders.

When Gingerich undertook his archival world tour, the global Mennonite population stood between 400,000 and 600,000 people. Roughly one third of these people lived in places outside of North America or Europe. Since then, the global Mennonite population has grown rapidly so that, today, Mennonites in Latin America, Asia, and Africa outnumber Mennonites in North America and Europe by a ratio of 2 to 1.6 The demographic shift that has occurred in the global Mennonite community in the last several decades raises important questions about the stories we tell about our shared history. Specifically, what should global Mennonite history look like and who should set the terms for those discussions?

Gingerich envisioned global Mennonite history as an unbroken narrative thread connecting the past to the present through the lives of “the people of God around the world.” His efforts to involve local believers in the telling of their own stories were ahead of their time. However, in his vision Mennonites from North America and Europe remained firmly at the center of this story as keepers of the collective memory of an Anabaptist tradition rooted in sixteenth century Europe.

Today, organizations such as the Mennonite World Conference and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism are modifying this vision through initiatives such as Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of events during which Mennonites will meet annually in locations across the globe to commemorate and reflect upon the five hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement. Organizers are planning the events with a broad, ecumenical vision which recognizes shared heritage and convictions but also the unique and varied ways followers have lived out the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith in diverse cultural contexts around the world.7 According to John D. Roth, the commemorations present an opportunity to “engage in fresh thinking” about the “global nature of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church today” and how this global nature “challenges or expands definitions of the word ‘Anabaptist.’”8 Such efforts are important steps toward decentering North America and Europe in the stories we tell about “the people of God around the world.”

Footnotes:


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Letter from Melvin Gingerich to Verna Gingerich, December 24, 1968


  1. Melvin and Verna visited Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, and Hawaii. 
  2. Gingerich was careful to specify that the couple paid for Verna’s travel expenses from their own funds (see photo). 
  3. Gingerich was born and raised in Kalona, Iowa. After graduating from Goshen College – where he met his wife, Verna – in 1926 he later earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa in 1938. After some short teaching stints at Washington Junior College (Iowa) and Bethel College (Kansas), he moved with his family to Goshen (Indiana) where he served as archivist of the (Old) Mennonite Church Archives for the rest of his career (1947-1970). For part of this time he also directed the Mennonite Research Foundation and edited the Mennonite Encyclopedia
  4. Quotations come from reports contained in the Melvin Gingerich Papers, HM1-129, Archival World Trip – 1969, Box 78, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Throughout his reports, Gingerich drew a distinction between the “younger churches” and the “older churches” in the global Mennonite community. 
  7. These are rough estimates based upon statistics from 1958 and 1978 published on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=World_Mennonite_Membership_Distribution 
  8. John Roth uses the concept of “right remembering” to examine the relationship between commemorations, historical memory, and collective identity formation in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite community. See John D. Roth, “How to Commemorate a Division? Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and its Relevance for the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Church Today,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91:1 (January 2017), 24-35. 

Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

Janneken Smucker

I’ve read with interest the posts here from my colleagues  Ben Goossen on Digital History and Ted Maust on Public History, topics very near and dear to me in both my scholarship and teaching. Ben outlines some of the facets of digital history, particularly how digital technologies can provide increased access to historical sources. Ted considers what public history—historical interpretation that in some way engages with the general public rather than to fellow academic historians—can do and has done for Anabaptists. I’d like to draw on these threads by exploring the role of oral history, and how oral history poses particular opportunities and challenges for those of us conducting history among Anabaptist groups.

Much of my scholarly energy in recent years has involved oral history in one capacity or another. As a young historian working on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a natural fit. Interviews with living subjects served as excellent primary sources for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College, about the origins of the Women’s Studies program at GC. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies.

Members of the Anabaptist faith have long valued oral tradition, as the stories from our ancestors have been a source of faith. So-called ethnic Mennonites remember the challenges of our forebearers as stories and folklore are passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps Martyrs’ Mirror, with its tales of courage and conviction, is the ultimate collection of Anabaptist oral tradition. Books like Martyrs Mirror, Amish Roots, and MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions collect and interpret some oral accounts that have resonance to many members of the Anabaptist tradition.1

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Sons of Maeyken Wens search for the tongue screw used to silence her among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573. Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 661 of Dutch edition. Source: Rijksmuseum via GAMEO

But oral history itself is a historical method distinct from oral tradition. Oral history really only became possible in our current understanding of the term with the availability of audio recording technologies, which enabled the interview—the dialogue between the interviewer and narrator—to become permanently fixed as a primary source. One of the most straightforward definitions of oral history comes from Donald Ritchie: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives.”2

My brief search for Mennonite (the wing of Anabaptism I most closely identify with) oral histories turned up archived collections of interviews (among others) with Russian Mennonite immigrants, World War I conscientious objectors (with digitized audio!), Mennonite women from Manitoba discussing their childbirth experiences, and video interviews collected by the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the oral history collections I discovered are from Canadian organizations or are interviews conducted with individuals from Russian-Mennonite backgrounds. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that Amish and “Old Mennonites”—the really quiet of the land—have been less keen on recording oral histories. Maybe individual life stories have seemed not to reflect the humility for which these groups have historically striven, or members of these less worldly affiliations have been reluctant to record their stories using modern technologies for the permanent record. In my own research, I’ve encountered this. What if the narrator is from a plain community and does not feel comfortable with the research, the technology, the release forms, or the archive? Can we still do oral history?

Two current tenets of oral history which squarely place this methodology in relationship with public history are “informed consent” and “shared authority.” By informed consent, oral historians mean that the interviewee/narrator has a full understanding of the purpose and potential uses of the interview. They should understand that they are “on the record” while being able to restrict aspects of their interview for future use if necessary. Typically, this is handled through a release form granting the interviewer permission to record, use, and/or archive the interview. Historian Michael Frisch popularized the term “shared authority” in relationship to oral and public history, suggesting that historians are not the sole arbiters of historical interpretation, but instead share that authority with those from the public with whom we dialogue and engage—especially those sharing their testimony through oral history interviews.3

Amish Country Quilts

Carol Highsmith, Amish Country Quilts, c. 1990. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

When I was conducting fieldwork among Amish quilt entrepreneurs, I was hesitant to pull out legal forms for these women to sign, let along my fancy little digital audio recorder. Although I strived to make these informants feel comfortable speaking with me, I don’t think I did particularly well with “informed consent” guideline. I typically told the proprietor of a shop I was a student studying quilts (true, even though I was a PhD student, who hoped to eventually translate my research into a book) and asked if I could ask her a few questions. These women (and the occasional man) were usually quite willing to talk. They were accustomed to tourists asking lots of questions about quilts, and they typically had an almost scripted answer to my questions about how the design, production, and sale of quilts functioned. I did not quote these informants directly in my text, since I did not record the conversations, although their responses certainly served as evidence that informed my interpretation of the subject. In the endnotes to my book, I refer to these non-interviews as “conversations” rather than as “interviews.”4

In 2003, when Emma Witmer, the Old Order Mennonite proprietor of the longest operating quilt shop in Lancaster County, agreed to give an interview for Q.S.O.S. – Quilters Save Our Stories, an oral history project of the non-profit Quilt Alliance, she declined to be recorded or have her photograph taken. But she agreed to tell her story, presumably feeling informed and giving consent, as she signed a release form. Interviewer Heather Gibson took notes rather than record the audio, and the online “transcript” begins with the disclaimer: “notes from the interviewer—Emma Witmer is an Old Order Mennonite. The interview was recorded on pencil and paper at Emma Witmer’s request. Portions of the interview that were not recorded verbatim are noted in brackets. There are no photographs.” With this note, can we even consider this interview as “oral history,” at least based on Ritchie’s definition that an oral history must be recorded in audio or video? I drew on this interview extensively in my research on the origins of the quilt industry in Lancaster County, but is this as reliable of a source as I think it is since it is based on notes, which ultimately are an interpretation of the interview rather than the verbatim interview itself? Is it more or less reliable than the “conversations” I had with other shop owners?5

In contrast, one particular Amish informant was quite willing to go on the record, signing the forms and having his voice recorded. He knew I was writing about his father, an Amish businessman who bought quilts from his co-religionists and sold them to New York quilt dealers. He was the expert. I was the student. Here I think I came close to achieving the elusive “shared authority,” with his interview completely transforming my understanding of the relationship of Amish individuals to the market for quilts. When I wrote articles drawing on what I learned from him, I sent him drafts, and he gave me feedback. I even invited him to attend my dissertation defense, where he engaged in the discussion along with my committee members (he continues to relish telling people about that momentous event).

Excerpt from interview with Benuel Riehl, conducted by Janneken Smucker, May 13, 2008.

Throughout my career as a historian, I am continually reminded of the power of the first hand accounts gained through oral history. But I worry about what interviews we might never have the opportunity to record because of the challenges of conducting interviews with some Anabaptist groups. I also fear for the collections of interviews that have been recorded—like the ones with Mennonite women about childbirth—but remain inaccessible, on analog cassette tapes in faraway archives. Too often oral history projects result in amazing resources that are virtually undiscoverable, although new technologies have made it increasingly affordable and possible to provide access. And most importantly, we need to find ways to ensure that we as historians freely share our authority with our publics, listening not only as a way to elicit details of the past, but also as a way to check our perceived expertise as historians.


  1.  Thieleman J. van Braght, I. Daniel Rupp, and Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa.: David Miller, 1837); John A Hostetler, Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004). 
  2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. 
  3.  Michael H Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990); Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, Pa.; Walnut Creek: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage ; Distributed by Left Coast Press, 2011). 
  4.  See Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 
  5.  Emma Witmer, interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003, Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, http://quiltalliance.org/portfolio/qsos-emma-witmer/

Digital History: The German Mennonite Sources Database

By Ben Goossen

What does it mean to bring the “Anabaptist past into a digital century”? The subtitle of this blog includes a playful reference to the anti-modernist stance of many Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and other so-called Plain Peoples—as well as an acknowledgement of the widely-held stereotype that Anabaptists do not use technology or engage the modern world. On one hand, the mission of Anabaptist Historians parallels that of any historical organization, namely to uncover, interpret, and make accessible the records of bygone eras for twenty-first century audiences. Yet for scholars of Anabaptism, this task holds unique challenges as well as opportunities.

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Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database were collected during the research for Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton University Press, 2017)

“Digital History” is a practice that, over the past several years, has increasingly shaped the historical profession. In a narrow sense, Digital History refers to projects that primarily use digital tools to tell historical stories, such as animated maps, YouTube documentaries, or interactive wikis. Anabaptist-related efforts such as the extensive Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) or the Bearing Witness website, designed to collect stories of persecuted Anabaptists from around the world, fit this definition. At an even broader level, nearly all history done today is “digital” in some way. It is hard to imagine writing an article or reviewing a book without opening Google, consulting an online repository like JSTOR, or downloading an open-access journal. Sending emails, maintaining websites, and using search engines are all part of Digital History.

Some Anabaptist groups are today among the only populations that write history without digital tools. In the summer of 2016, when the Anabaptist Historians Editorial Board was starting this blog, one tough question was how to include conservative Amish and other historians who do not use the internet. Is it possible to represent the full spectrum of Anabaptist pasts and identities in a digital format? Or does the very nature of a blog preclude the participation and accurate representation of some groups? We tried to create a website defined by simplicity – a value with cachet in Anabaptist households and Silicon Valley alike – yet reaching conservative populations remains difficult. When communicating with one historian in the Weaverland Conference, for example, I copy and paste web text into my messages or send screenshots as attachments, since he uses email but no internet browsers.

In other circumstances, Anabaptist history can feel tailor-made for digital approaches. With a relatively small population – around two million members are active worldwide – major digital projects are more feasible than they would be for larger demographics. Anabaptism, as a religious movement, is also blessed with substantial institutional resources, including church libraries, denominational archives, and nongovernmental organizations. Many have already undertaken Digital History initiatives. And joining these is a vast webscape of informal Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, chat room support groups, and genealogical sites. Previous posts on this blog have begun a fascinating dialogue about the places where Anabaptist history happens, including discussions of the value of borderland perspectives, centralized archives, and public history. How can we think about cyberspace as a location of and platform for historical work?

Over the past seven years, I have been working on a large-scale digitization project, the German Mennonite Sources Database. Released in October and hosted online by the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas, this is the largest digital repository of books and newspapers by or about Mennonites in Germany as well as one of the most complete collections on this subject anywhere in the world. The database spans the years 1800 to 1950 and includes approximately 100,000 pages of text, including thousands of books, pamphlets, newsletters, and articles. Its purpose is to make historical resources available to anyone who reads German and is interested in religious history. Readers will find documents pertaining to virtually every aspect of German Mennonite life, ranging from sermons and catechisms to texts on nonresistance, the draft, and Nazism. Some topics are expected, such as hymn selections and condemnations of oath swearing. Others less so – like an 1859 rumination on vampires in the world’s first journal of folklore.

The German Mennonite Sources Database began as a personal resource, growing out of research conducted for my book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming in 2017 from Princeton University Press. As a history of Mennonites’ worldwide entanglement with German nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chosen Nation required familiarity with a wide spectrum of issues, from congregational and institutional life to historical, educational, and mission activities, involvement in war and political movements, peace declarations, gender, genocide, and anti-Semitism. In archives across Europe and the Americas, I found myself digitizing dozens or sometimes hundreds of documents a day. The essential tools of the Digital Historian include a computer, cell phone, digital camera, and a bevy of cords, adapters, and USB sticks. My archival desks unfailingly resembled a crow’s nest of snaking wires and metallic boxes.

A major advantage of Digital History is its ability to make scarce resources widely available. Documents that might exist only in one or two places in the world become accessible to anyone with a modem. This has a democratizing effect, since travel to distant libraries or archives usually requires deep pockets or university support, while digital files can be downloaded from the comfort of home. With Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and online translation services (some of which now use artificial intelligence), texts in German or other languages can be rendered quickly and with stunning accuracy into English. Still another advantage is that different researchers bring diverse perspectives to the same sources. Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database, for instance, might find wide interest beyond my initial purposes – hopefully providing a basis for articles, dissertations, scholarly debates, and family research.

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Warnings and Suggestions for Military Service, a handbook for Mennonite soldiers, is one of thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles now available via the German Mennonite Sources Database

Not all history is digital, of course, and not all Digital History is good. While open-access sites like the German Mennonite Sources Database are available to all, many research venues like Ancestry.com or HeinOnline lock material that would be provided for free in physical libraries behind digital paywalls. In this age of uneven globalization, the web remains only partially worldwide, with internet unavailable to the earth’s most disadvantaged populations – those lacking power in both senses of the word. As Anabaptists, we are also attuned to the spiritual politics of the internet. Is it possible to use digital tools in ways that are constructive rather than damaging, uniting rather than alienating? Such questions resonate with current public debates about internet bullying, cyberterrorism, and fake news. Some plain Anabaptists find a solution in eschewing digital resources altogether.

Our challenge then, as Anabaptist historians, is to consider not only how to engage Digital History, but also how to do so responsibly. Can we find ways of digitizing library holdings that also increase donations and visits to physical locations? Can we build integrated networks to share data and exchange ideas without losing sight of the distinctive needs and identities within the Anabaptist church family? Perhaps we could take cues from the wonderful work already undertaken by friends and colleagues – such as the open access website of Anabaptist Witness, the database of Anabaptist-related websites hosted by Mennonite Church USA, or the breathtaking Mennonite Archival Image Database. The tools offered by Digital History are like any new resource. They invite us to explore and affirm their limitations, while also finding fresh ways of working together.

You can access the German Mennonite Sources Database here.

Thanks to John Thiesen and the Mennonite Library and Archives for hosting the German Mennonite Sources Database, as well as to Rosalind Andreas, Kevin Enns-Rempel, Rachel Waltner Goossen, Royden Loewen, Titus Peachey, John Roth, Astrid von Schlachta, and Paul Toews for their support.

Now You’re the Institution

Jason B. Kauffman

My reference to a Ben Folds song probably dates me, but lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between archives, institutions, and power. According to historian Paul Toews (described by Felipe Hinojosa in a recent blog), as I write this blog I am sitting in one of the “archival centers of the Mennonite universe.” I recently began working as director of the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Goshen. As a senior at Goshen College (2005) I spent long hours in the archives researching for my history thesis project.

When I reported for my first day of work in July, the archives looked (and smelled) pretty much like I remembered them, complete with a stone bust of Sanford Calvin Yoder (President of Goshen College from 1923 to 1940) and a large plaque listing the names of “pioneer leaders” (all white men of European descent) in the (old) Mennonite Church. One of the men, Jacob Gottschalk (the first Mennonite bishop in Germantown, Pennsylvania), is a distant family relative. So, to quote Ben Folds again, “how’s it feel to be the man?”

I don’t have a simple answer to that question. As a historian, I resonate with Hinojosa’s call to “deterritorialize Mennonite studies” and to tell the stories of Mennonites whose lives unfolded on the periphery, far removed from “holy places” like Goshen, Newton, Lancaster, or Winnipeg. I spent the majority of graduate school resisting the centralizing forces in my discipline which told me that the only topics worthy of study were those with an established historiography, focused on places at the centers of political or economic power. Latin American history is very nation-centric and I found a niche in the study of frontiers and borderlands, a subfield which questions the centrality of the nation-state in the stories historians tell about the region and its people. In a similar way to the Mennonite community in south Texas that Hinojosa describes, I discovered that what it means to be Brazilian or Bolivian looks very different from the margins than it does at the center. Place matters.

However, institutions also matter. For historians, institutions matter because they are the entities most likely to preserve the documents that we rely upon to analyze and write about the past. While my research focused on one of the most sparsely populated regions in South America, I would not have been able to write my dissertation without going to institutional archives in Rio de Janeiro or La Paz. Indeed, the available sources often dictate the types of questions we can ask (and answer) about the past. Through my research, I was able to learn much about how representatives of the Bolivian state felt about migratory laborers and the many ways officials attempted to control the movement of goods and people across borders. I learned comparatively little about the complex motivations that guided individuals in their decisions to migrate in search of work, how they felt about these decisions, and how such decisions impacted their lives and families.

Such archival silences are, of course, also present at the MC USA Archives. For example, collections in the archives yield much information about how church leaders and academics felt about growing Mennonite involvement in business after World War II but much less about businesspeople themselves, those who built successful businesses while navigating the norms and expectations of the broader Mennonite community. Despite such limitations, many historians have made creative use of the MC USA Archives. For example, recent studies have mined collections for sources that document Mennonite involvement during the Civil Rights movement and the complicated dynamics of racial prejudice and discrimination that pervaded this involvement.1 And there are many more sources yet to be discovered. But this does not change the fact that the voices of institutional (white, male) leaders are overrepresented in the archives and those of ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and those otherwise removed from institutional centers are underrepresented. This reality is itself a reflection of the history of the Mennonite Church as an institution.

Through my job as the archivist, I am now a part of this institution. I am keenly aware of the power that institutions hold to shape the terms of historical memory and its production.2 Archives play a key role in this equation because the written word is one of the primary ways in which people and institutions preserve history for future generations.3 Archives are also powerful weapons that institutions have used in their efforts to minimize or, in some cases, completely erase elements of the past.4 History is replete with examples of the many ways that institutions have done damage to the broader communities that they represent.

At the same time, now that I’m on the “inside” my perspective is beginning to shift. From the outside, institutions often seem like faceless entities, engaged in a timeless quest to centralize authority and wield power to advance their own agendas. It is often easy to forget that the Mennonite Church is a complex institution made up of complex individuals, each with different backgrounds and changing (and, in many cases, different) beliefs, motivations, and goals. All share a deep commitment to the broader Mennonite community and many are actively working to promote peace and social justice; to combat racism, prejudice, and discrimination; and to redefine what it means to be Mennonite.

No institution is perfect and good intentions do not erase the inequalities and injustices that persist. It is difficult to predict what form the institutional Mennonite Church will take in the next decades or how it will evolve or adapt in response to our rapidly changing denominational landscape. In 2116, who will future generations of Mennonites look back and recognize as the “pioneer leaders” of the twenty-first century? I hope that the list will be much different than the one currently hanging in the archives, made up of many more people from the farthest reaches of the Mennonite universe.

To explore one of the ways that the MC USA Archives is working to document the diversity of Mennonites voices, check out this online archive of Mennonite websites, which preserves the websites of Mennonite news outlets, MC USA agencies and conferences, and Mennonite bloggers. Let me know of others that I should add to the list!


  1.  Many of these recent studies also make excellent use of oral histories, critical sources for documenting and understanding the lives and experiences of people underrepresented in the written historical record. 
  2.  See, for example, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). 
  3.  Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). 
  4. For a recent – and excellent – exploration of these dynamics at play, see Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).