Keys to the Archive: A Gathering of Old Men


This Scalar exhibit makes the second installment of the Keys to the Archive series that we started in the fall of 2019. As with the first, on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, graduate students steered the project from conceptualization to content creation to editorial intervention. The work began in a course on research methods. Following Tara McPherson’s adage to “start wordy, end nerdy,” we began by reading A Gathering of Old Men alongside works of critical theory and literary criticism before building the digital content. That initial period of discussion and interpretation let us ask fundamental questions about form, genre, reading, interpretation, representation, and the preservation of cultural memory.

Those theoretical discussions laid a foundation for developing interpretations of the novel that addressed problems in different fields of study. Students explored their own interests in areas such as critical theology, critical race studies, folklore, social justice activism, trauma studies, gender studies, and composition and rhetoric. The papers they wrote at mid-term became the basis for this collaborative project. As a class, they generated a set of keywords relevant to the novel, then each writer used what they learned in their own research to author entries for those critical terms.

The pandemic made it difficult for us to work together at the Gaines Center. Instead of visiting as a group, a small team consulted the collections, making notes and scanning pages that we thought the entire class could use. Although that method resulted in less hands-on work with the Gaines collections, students found other ways to engage the archival materials and the cultural landscape of the novel, such as building a StoryMap to index real-life locations relevant to the novel. Their efforts to work beyond the usual processes of archival research appear in the creative aspects of this exhibit.

Lauren Barker Bedsole traveled to Oscar, LA to see where Gaines was born and where he is now buried. She documented her trip with a series of photographs featured in a gallery page titled Oscar, LA Today. The images show us the sites that inspired the setting of Gaines’s fiction at the same time they echo a photo essay that Gaines himself published in 1978 as he began work on A Gathering of Old Men. Bedsole’s photos also serve as header illustrations for creative works that contributors completed in response to specific draft documents. We grouped those creative responses under the title Traces to remind readers that Gaines’s fiction not only memorializes the history of his hometown but also continues to inspire new ways of seeing and writing South Louisiana.

The creative aspects of this exhibit exemplify the ingenuity of students and scholars who continue their work even in the face of a stultifying pandemic. All over the world, researchers have had to find alternatives to their tried and true methods. Finding those alternatives in a course on research methods proved at once challenging and galvanizing because it required us to rethink the horizons of possibility for meeting our learning objectives. In the process, we began to appreciate all the people who make our research feasible: not just archivists and librarians, but also administrators and support staff.

Sadly, we lost someone to the pandemic who made UL Lafayette more productive, more efficient, and more supportive of academic community. Carolyn Dural would not have had a direct role in this project, but her absence reminded us how the work of advising students, supporting events, and administering college-level initiatives go toward creating hospitable conditions for intellectual exchange. Needless to say, we missed her presence while working on this project and will miss her as long as we continue to work in her absence.

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