Archivists work with hundreds, if not thousands, of traditional researchers during the course of their careers. While it is true that an archivist never knows what to expect from researchers as they enter the glass doors of the Reading Room, the researcher’s experience is typical, their requests almost always accommodated. The significance of these visits, whether an hour, a day, or a week in length, should not be understated, though; what happens during a visit to the Archives is often rewarding, enriching, even magical. But regardless of the Archives ability to excite, inspire, and inform, there is a still a process each and every visitor must follow upon arriving.
Whether a researcher is seeking genealogical records, historical photographs, or bound volumes in special collections, once they have registered, they ask for an item or a series of document cases to be retrieved from the secure, climate-controlled storage space, and then begin performing their research. A researcher may use a pencil and paper, a laptop, a tablet, or even a smart phone to take notes and are permitted to take self-photography or request high-quality scans of archival materials from the staff. Once the researcher is finished with their work (or the Reading Room closes, which ever comes first), they pack up their belongings and go on their way. The staff then close the Archives for the evening, satisfied with another successful day of business as usual.
However, there is an aspect of this typical experience that is rarely discussed and perhaps because it is difficult to see, even for the most keen of observers. The truth is that researchers who choose to examine traditional forms of archival materials, such as correspondence, diaries, or manuscripts are often forced to draw conclusions from incomplete research because there are gaps in the materials. The researcher of personal diaries may discover that the creator failed to make entries on certain days or even for days, weeks, or months at a time. One person in a pair of correspondents may not write to their partner for some time, or they may stop writing back entirely. Ultimately, there exist many reasons why researchers may need to read between the lines and that is okay; the accounts found in documentary history are not perfect, nor are their creators. Upon discovering inconsistent information, it is the responsibility of the archival researcher to acknowledge the challenge and muster an effort to speculate about the possible fate of the document’s creator(s).
This experience is acceptable during the course of performing archival research and eventual publication. If this is so, then are we surprised when alternative media in the archives prompts researchers to speculate, as well? Even the existence of a collection of alternative materials, such as a gaming collection (including board games, PC, and video games) in an archive would strike most people as usual. There is such a collection here at the Gordon Library within the larger Special Collections to be found in Curation, Preservation, and Archives. Yes, the typical researcher comes to the Archives looking for artifacts of the past, but usually not the recent past. Perhaps even more conflicting are the games themselves, many of which were created with plots based on historical events that evoke nostalgia within their players. Most of these games cover historical battles or general military conflict in their plots. Confronted with this puzzle, one stops to question: why collect and preserve games based on events from the past? This inquiry is a valid one because even if a player succeeds in defeating the other player(s), the results of historical battles will remain unchanged.
Assuming that many people who visit archives have had little to no contact with alternative forms of archives, it is easy to see where the confusion lies. However, a closer examination of these materials reveals that they are remarkably similar to traditional media; players experience similar discoveries while playing games as researchers do when using bound materials or organized documents. For example, imagine two players begin a game based on the Civil War. One player chooses the role of the Army of Northern Virginia and the other the Army of the Potomac. Both players enter game play completely aware that no matter which player wins the ten rounds, the Army of Northern Virginia was defeated at the end of the Battle of Gettysburg. Regardless of this fact, players still enjoy planning tactical actions in an effort to defeat their opponent. Just as a researcher might wonder about General Robert E. Lee’s innermost thoughts while examining his correspondence, the player of historical board games experiences the same wonder while reenacting the battle on a smaller scale. What might it feel like to be there on that day in history? What would the world be like today if the battle’s outcome was different from the one we read about in history books? When one realizes that the player’s questions are similar to those posed by traditional archival researchers, board games begin to seem less and less “alternative.”
Speculation is a crucial skill that is often overlooked but it is equally as important to employ while performing archival research as it is while playing a board game with friends or family. If a person has the ability to play a board game, they have the ability to discover the past. In either situation, the role of the archivist is to observe, facilitate, and encourage discoveries that lead to historical inquiry. After all, some of the most notable works of history may not have been produced if the writer did not read between the lines.