On April 11, Marta Werner presented the URI community with a glimpse into the Amherst College Archives in an inspiring talk titled “Weathering: Reading the Snell Family Meteorological Journal in the Long Days of the Anthropocene.” The Snell family journals are a multivolume collection of weather recordings written by Ebenezer Snell and Sabra Snell from 1835 until 1902. Werner’s talk meditated on the value of contemplating the hourly and daily functions of the weather, but she also asked her audience to consider what else these journals might have to say. The journals collectively are a scientific effort to document the climate of Amherst over a period of time. But Werner suggested that we also look at them as a project of shared authorship between father and daughter – a project started by a father and continued by a daughter for a quarter century after his death. As Werner pointed out, the journals survive them; they are what the Snells have left behind.
Today, the journals exist in the archives as a historical document. Werner’s talk interrogated the term “historical document” and invited us to contemplate what it means. “What is a document?” she asked a room full of students, staff, and faculty members. She pressed the question further, considering the various associations we might have with this particular word. Often, it’s a word associated with proof and evidence, but Werner suggested that much of what a document has to offer its readers remains unsettled. A document doesn’t have clearly defined beginnings and endings as some might assume.
The same may be said for what is found in the archives. It’s a common misconception that the archives are a place of order, organization, and completeness. Instead, Werner’s experiences working there have led her to understand the archive as a place with indistinct boundaries between author and reader, between past and present, between what we write and what is being written. Her work insightfully questions its seemingly arbitrary nature, asking, “Why do some documents speak to us while others we leave behind?”
In response to this question, Werner considers working in the archives as occupying a space of chance meetings. When someone enters this space, there is no telling what may be found. Some documents speak to us; others seem to have nothing more to say. As Werner understands it, the archive is a place of accidental meetings between the present moment and a moment from the past. She recognizes that all historical documents outlive those who have written them, and her work has allowed her a space to make connections between the living and the dead. In this sense, Werner considers the Snell meteorological journals as a “living archive,” a message that still speaks: “If you keep looking, even the most unpromising thing can be luminous.”