Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Capital Region Archives Dinner

The Thirteenth Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner, which may well be the longest-running event of its type in the nation, was held tonight at the lovely Mansion at Cedar Hill in Selkirk, NY.

The Archives Dinner allows archivists, records managers, and archival allies in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area to kick back, enjoy some good food and good company, and honor folks who have made significant contributions to the archival community or raised awareness of historical records. I got to see all kinds of people I wish I could see more often, including but not limited to:
Of course, lots and lots of folks from the New York State Archives were there, too. I interact with 'em five days a week, but I love seeing them in an informal setting and getting to chat with all their significant others.

Susan D'Entremont, the Capital Region's DHP Regional Archivist, junior co-chair of the Archives Dinner Committee, and another person I would like to see more often, got the evening off to a rollicking good start, and the State Archives' Ray LaFever did his usual bang-up job as MC.

We have a speaker at each Archives Dinner, and William T. "Chip" Reynolds delivered a great presentation. Chip is the captain of the Half Moon, a full-scale and fully operational replica of the ship that in 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name. (As you might expect, 2009 is going to be a big deal in New York State--it's the 400th anniversary of the voyages of Hudson and Samuel de Champlain and the 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton's first steamship voyage up the Hudson River--so Chip's presentation was very apropos.)

Chip started out as a scientist studying changes in reef formations, and his presentation drove home the ways in which archival materials shed light on not only human history but natural history--in his former career, he made heavy use of survey records held by the National Archives when studying reefs. Using a number of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century maps as examples, he then detailed how they document the emergence of empirical ways of understanding the world and the findings of successive explorers.

The bulk of Chip's presentation highlighted the centrality of archival records such as the original ship's log to the operations of the replica ship, which has an educational mission. Groups of middle schoolers spend one-week stints on the ship and are responsible for sailing the ship, using replicas of seventeenth-century instruments to measure the ship's speed, course, etc., and keeping records of the ship's operations. In some areas of the Hudson, they use fascimiles of early seventeenth-century maps to navigate the ship--in sections of the river that haven't been extensively altered by dredging, etc., some maps that were created over three hundred years ago remain extremely accurate. When they're not sailing the ship, they perform scientific experiments--gathering and testing water samples, etc.--and document their findings.

I'm working from memory, and I know I'm not doing justice to Chip's presentation or the Half Moon itself. Chip and his colleagues have developed a fantastic program, and they compel students to apply their knowledge of history, mathematics, and science to a host of real-world problems and scenarios--and to understand the importance of drawing upon existing records and creating new ones that document their findings. A good friend of mine regularly crews on the Half Moon, and I can see why he keeps going back year after year.

Chip also imparted one fascinating fact that was totally new to me: the first European to take up permanent residence in New Netherland was one Jan Rodrigues, who in 1613 opted to settle on Manhattan. Rodrigues is referred to as "the Moor" in the records, indicating that, in all likelihood, at least some of his forebears were of African descent. Rodrigues was a free man, and he freely chose to settle in New Netherland and live among the Native Americans--something that Chip's African-American students find surprising and inspiring.

After Chip's speech ended, we gave awards to Jan Allen, who could not attend the Archives Dinner due to illness but has helped to develop all sorts of curricula that make use of archival materials and has tirelessly championed student use of historical records, and to Gerry Zahavi. Gerry is a true friend of archives: he's helped find archival homes for the papers of labor activist Helen Quirini and folklorist Norman Studer, the records of IUE Local 301, and other important collections, he ensures that his oral history interviews and those of his students are held by repositories, and he takes great pains to make his students aware of the riches that await them in archives.

Gerry said something really striking when he received his award: whenever people ask him what his favorite book or article is, he doesn't know how to answer because he finds archival records so much more interesting than monographs and journal articles. All of his favorite readings are primary sources.

The evening sort of wound down after the awards were given out, but I stayed a little while longer and talked to Gerry, Chip, and some State Archives folks. It was a great evening.

And if you're in the Albany area and are looking for a banquet facility . . . the Mansion at Cedar Hill lacks a Web site but has plenty of historic ambiance--a 19th-century governor of New York lived here, the gangster/bootlegger Legs Diamond spent a little time at the place, and it served as an Elks Lodge for a time. It's quaint, the owner's great, and so is the food; having feasted on superb egglant Napoleon and pumpkin cake tonight, I hope that that the Mansion at Cedar Hill evolves into a full-fledged restaurant!

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