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In the Archives: W. Edward Orser

American Studies professor W. Edward Orser has been kind enough to submit today's essay. Orser is a frequent user and advocate of archives and special collections materials, both through his teaching and professional research. Digital images and additional information about the Lewis Hine Child Labor Collection are available at our Digital Collections website.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words–Or Is It?

In our American Studies major we want students to have opportunities to engage primary documents, and for the past several years I have required that students in my 300-level American Studies course conduct primary research which makes use of the substantial Lewis Hine Child Labor Collection in UMBC’s Library Special Collections. I explain to them that many “term papers,” like those they may have done in high school, rely heavily on secondary sources where the task is to learn what others (“experts”) have said about the particular topic. There the goal is to use a range of secondary sources to provide a thorough and balanced paper. However, the objective I set for this assignment is for them to engage a set of primary documents directly–developing their own skills of analysis and interpretation, rather than depending upon what others have said.

UMBC’s Lewis Hine Child Labor Collection, one of three major repositories of the photos (the others being the Library of Congress and the Eastman Kodak Library in Rochester), contains several thousand images Hine took across the United States to document the conditions under which children were working and to provide evidence on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee for its goal of laws regulating the work of children and requiring public education. The images typically have Hine’s captions attached, noting the time and place of the photo, but also including his observations and commentary as well.

P1386.jpgEach year I assign sets of 20 different photographs from the range of states and ask the students to select 10 for their close analysis and interpretation. In recent years, the collection has been digitized, which makes it wonderfully accessible as a first step in the selection process. But I insist that students visit Special Collections in person and view those they have selected directly. While digitization and internet access provide amazing opportunities for immediate access to images of all kinds, I think it is an essential research experience for students to view the original photos in their archival setting. And, though it takes a bit of coaxing for them to leave the convenience of their computers and arrange the visit in person, the students often comment that the first hand encounter with the documents has revealed insights not readily evident on-line.

A principal rule of the written report is that it should not include the statement, “a picture is worth a thousand words”! While it is true that sheer description of some of the images might indeed require that many words, or more, the challenge is to figure out what kind of evidence about child labor the visual images convey. From what we know about the concerns of Hine and the goals of the Child Labor Committee, how might any of the visuals contribute to the case they were hoping to make? And what techniques did Hine employ to convey that evidence? For example, photos that show small children beside larger adults provide a direct comparison in size, just as they also illustrate how children were placed in settings where they must function alongside of and in roles like adults. If the picture is indeed worth a thousand or more words, what would be the message of those words?

But the photos often are limited in how well they can convey messages, and Hine DOES use words, too, so students are encouraged to figure out the role of his words and what they indicate about things that he felt were important but beyond the direct visual evidence. Sometimes these are simple facts which he clearly has investigated, such as the actual ages of children. Or, it may be that he has learned of a circumstance which cannot be explained entirely by the photographic evidence; for instance, a photo that shows a child with a missing or injured limb, paired with one of a factory building, with the explanation by Hine that this child was injured in an accident at this place of work–a connection that only the written words could provide. And Hine’s captions often go beyond simple information to register the editorial commentary that is at the heart of his mission. For example, photograph after photograph of children working in the fields of southern New Jersey harvesting a seasonal crop bear the repetitive comment that schools in the area had already begun more than a month earlier, and these children are missing out. Or, even more pointedly, Hine’s commentary sometimes resorts to out-right slogans of the anti-child labor movement, conveying written messages that these are children who are forced to become adults before their time, or going so far as to state that they are being treated as “human junk”–just in case the viewer has missed the meaning of the photos. As to responsibility, while the message frequently is about employers and their policies, it sometimes is also about how families in impoverished circumstances are forced to depend upon the labor of their children, even to the point of lying about their ages. Occasionally, Hine reserves his greatest ire for parents who clearly use their children to support their own idleness or failings, as in the case of an alcoholic father. Regardless of whether the problem is the industrial system in which impoverished parents are snared, the bottom line conveyed by Hine’s photographs for the committee is the necessity of state intervention to establish protection for children and afford them educational opportunity.

So, sure, pictures are worth a lot of words. But finding the words to explain what the visual evidence means and learning what words are needed to convey information and judgments that are beyond the limits of the photographic medium–these are invaluable lessons for the student researcher. I would argue that these insights happen best when they occur in an archival setting where students have the opportunity to confront the documents in their original form. No longer are they simply repeating what others have said, nor are they simply viewing images others have preserved and scanned for them. They are engaging documentary evidence directly, and I believe this is an extremely important step in their journey toward becoming independent researchers and thinkers.

Ed Orser
Professor of American Studies
University of Maryland Baltimore County
June 14, 2010

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