When Every Box Is the Last Box

At the start of the pandemic, students and faculty from U-M’s History Department collaborated with Bentley archivists to find creative ways to produce a successful research project, even without physical access to archival materials.

By Alexander Clayton, Henry Cowles, and Gregory Parker

In the archives, there’s always that last box.

The one you meant to check—but didn’t. Maybe the reading room was closing and you told yourself you’d request it first thing the next morning. Or you remembered it over lunch and made a note to see it when you sat back down. But there were other boxes. You forgot.

The last box could contain anything. A key connection for your argument, a biographical detail you knew you needed. Or even the proverbial smoking gun, the ironclad proof that Dewey really did defeat Truman.

But the thing about the last box is that you never do get to check it. It’s elusive. Because after that last box, there’s always another last box.

But what if every box were the last box? What if you never got to see any boxes— and still had to do the hard work of history?

In answer to that question, this past spring, a small History Department team worked with Bentley archivists to redesign and reimagine a collaborative research project—finding a way for the research and work to continue, even though the archives were closed and students, faculty, and staff were all working remotely.

The project was part of Michigan in the World (MITW), a paid undergraduate internship program in which students develop online history exhibits.

Under normal circumstances, MITW teams work side-by-side throughout the spring term, poring over documents together to tell part of U-M’s history. This spring’s topic, “Mental Health at Michigan,” was designed to make use of the Bentley’s rich holdings of administrative reports, faculty records, and alumni files, among other sources.

But with the Bentley closed to the public and the University mandating remote work whenever possible, the team had to pivot. The project would remain collaborative and rooted in archival sources, but the nature of both collaboration and the archive was expanded.

Swapping Sources

In the past, students would have collaborated in the archive, swapping letters between deans and scrutinizing class photos to find their historical actors.

Tangible interaction with manuscripts is hard to replace, but a similar dynamic emerged in the digital space. Each of the five undergraduate fellows was assigned their own “character” from the history of mental health at Michigan, someone they could track through the archive on their own. They followed students, faculty, and administrators, exploring the ways in which race, gender, sexuality, and nationality all influenced the experience and treatment of student mental health.

Bentley archivists guided students’ searches to the library’s extensive digital collections. Students traded articles from the online archive of the Michigan Daily and linked to photographs from the Bentley Image Bank over Zoom. One letter from the Harlan Hatcher Papers was traded back and forth between the fellows multiple times.

A rotating peer review system not only improved the fellows’ writing, but also revealed even more connections between their respective stories.

Digital Needles, Digital Haystacks

COVID had set a hard line around the physical archive. But this blurred other lines: between the research and writing processes, between the fellows and their characters.

At home, students sifted through catalogues and search results, looking for digital needles in digital haystacks. Online search engines proved powerful and destructive at once: By allowing students to see a single name across thousands of newspaper articles, it was both easier and harder to reconstruct the lived reality of the historical actors.

This is especially true when those actors come from marginalized groups, when the process of digitization adds another layer by which certain voices are amplified or silenced. The case of Edward Dalton, a Black graduate student in social work, is one example. Two years at U-M, from 1939– 1941—among a student population that was almost entirely white—yielded only one available image, two Michigan Daily articles, and one mention of a psychotherapy practice in New York.

Dalton’s relative absence from the archive could have been a drawback in telling his story, but it instead became central to it. From his birth in Alabama, studies at U-M, and career in New York, Dalton’s life tracked the Great Migration, housing segregation, and the Harlem Renaissance. In other words, the limits of the archive opened up a wider story of inequality and opportunity.

Turning to online resources also meant accessing the excellent public history that was already available, including in the online U-M Heritage Project stories and past MITW initiatives.

Take Deborah Bacon, U-M’s final Dean of Women and a key figure in the university’s history.

In 1961, facing increased pressure from students and university administrators about her strict policies governing the lives of women students outside the classroom—including dress codes, curfews, and even “gentleman callers”—Bacon resigned. It was hard at first to imagine saying something new about someone so well-documented.

But the same sources that had made Heritage, Michigan Today, and MITW stories possible—for example, Michigan Daily articles about Bacon’s early life, and a letter she wrote to President Harlan Hatcher documenting her intervention to discipline two women caught in bed together—could be repurposed and reinterpreted for a history of mental health. Evidence of Bacon’s influence for one historian became, for another, data about university climate and its support for mental health (or lack thereof).

The case of Robert Stacy afforded a similar opportunity. He was a graduate student convicted of arson in a fire that destroyed the original Haven Hall in 1950, and his story was told on the U-M Heritage site. But rereading the sources in the context of Stacy’s struggle with mental health highlighted another aspect of his story: the ways various institutions, from the Veterans Administration to the university itself, failed to support him.

History is never over. Even for the most documented figures, something remains to be said, a dimension of their lives or their world remains to be revealed. This spring, mental health became a lens through which existing histories and well-known figures appeared in a new light.

Every archive has silences, and those silences often reproduce social and political marginalization. And all history is based in collaboration—during research or writing, in the reading room or online. We may never find that last box.

But we’ll keep looking.

View the “Mental Health at Michigan” exhibit online here.