Episode 075: Peter Drummey, How Archives Work


Historians research history in archives.

But how do you gain access to one? And how do you use an archive once you find that it likely contains the information you seek?

In this third episode of our “Doing History: How Historians Work” series, we investigate how archives work with Peter Drummey, an archivist and the Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

About the Series

Doing History episodes will introduce you to historians who will tell you what they know about the past and reveal how they came to their knowledge.

Each episode will air on the last Tuesday of each month in 2016.

This series is part of a partnership between Ben Franklin’s World and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Episode Summary

DrummeyIn this episode, we explore how archives work with Peter Drummey, an archivist and the Stephen T. Riley Librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

During our investigation, Peter reveals details about the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest historical society in the United States; The work archivists perform and how their work influences the way historians use historical materials; And, a behind-the-scenes look at some of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections, which include the Papers of Paul Revere and the personal papers of Thomas Jefferson.

What You’ll Discover

  • The founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society
  • The collections and archival focus of the MHS
  • The purpose of archives
  • How archives differ from libraries
  • The work archivists perform
  • How archivists’ arrangement and description of archival materials affects researchers’ use collections
  • How the MHS collects manuscripts, rare books, and printed materials for its collections
  • How the collection practices of the Massachusetts Historical Society has evolved over 225 years
  • Late-18th and early-19th-century ideas about document preservation
  • The digital collections and resources of the Massachusetts Historical Society
  • How the present influences the objectivity of archives and archive collecting
  • The Papers and “Midnight Ride” of Paul Revere
  • How archivists ensure historical materials will be around for researchers to use for years to come
  • How the Massachusetts Historical Society came to possess one of the largest collections of papers by Thomas Jefferson
  • Details about Thomas Jefferson, his home, and slaves
  • How archivists catalog and arrange large manuscript collections
  • Tips for researching in archives like the Massachusetts Historical Society
Revere and Jefferson
Paul Revere ca. 1813 & Thomas Jefferson ca. 1791


Links to People, Places, and Publications


Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

In your opinion what might have happened if Jeremy Belknap had not been interested in documenting the American experience? How would the history of the Massachusetts Historical Society and of American archives be different today?

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