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Review: Keys to the Archive

A review of Keys to the Archive, an archival collection focusing on the works of Ernest J. Gaines, directed by David Squires

Published onMay 30, 2023
Review: Keys to the Archive

Keys to the Archive: Ernest J. Gaines Center Collections

Project Director
David Squires, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Adrian S. Wisnicki, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Project Overview

David Squires

This series of online exhibits highlights key literary archival collections housed at the Ernest J. Gaines Center and offers critical insights for studying Gaines’s fiction. Gaines was one of the nation’s most distinguished novelists when he died on November 5, 2019. He authored 10 books and numerous articles; he earned a National Humanities Medal, a National Medal of the Arts, and the title Chevalier in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; and he served as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for nearly twenty-five years. Most significantly, he left a record of underrepresented rural communities in South Louisiana as, in one character’s words, “proof that we ever was” (Gaines 1983, p. 92). Although internationally renowned, Gaines’s fiction continues to represent a minority perspective in Louisiana. Celebrations of Cajun and Creole culture recognize minority communities associated with European diasporas. The culture and history associated with African diasporas end up doubly marginal, both minoritized by French and Spanish traditions as well as racialized by histories of slavery and Jim Crow. This series of online exhibits aims to encourage continued engagement with the literary record Gaines left behind as one way of understanding the ongoing social dynamics his fiction dramatized. 

The digital exhibits also contribute to efforts to diversify archival engagement. Major projects like Documenting the American South and The Walt Whitman Archive demonstrate how online resources can promote public use of archives. Yet, scholar Amy Earhart (2012) has shown that digital humanities funding tends to reproduce traditional canons. She argues, “We must ensure that our representation of culture does not exclude work by people of color” (Earhart 2012). Meanwhile, archivists have built on the call for better representation by encouraging the use of archival collections to “imagine the future as well as preserve the past” (Wisnicki and Ward 2019). Similarly, recent literary historians have drawn connections between material history and public awareness of Black life in the United States. As Jean-Christophe Cloutier (2019) explains, archival research on Black writing often “tackles those kinds of experiences that never or rarely leave a ‘record’ behind” ( p. 31). Gaines’s fiction worked to create a record of past lives in anticipation of future communities who will remember them. The thread connecting Gaines to recent work in public humanities, archival outreach, and literary history sutures past to present through expanded communities of knowledge. These digital exhibits work toward the goal of cultivating a more diverse historical memory.

To date the series includes three exhibits, each created with Scalar to cover one of Gaines’s major novels: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993). The heart of each exhibit is a series of individually authored keyword entries that introduce a concept relevant to Gaines’s fiction. Key terms range from literary genres (e.g. “Neo-Slave Narrative”) to features of Gaines’s setting (e.g. “Black Cemetery”) to theoretical concepts (e.g. “Intersectionality”). Each entry introduces a term, explains its relevance to the novel, and connects it to the archival collections. To give a more documentary account of the historical, cultural, and geographic setting, each exhibit includes introductory materials to help contextualize the novels. We used Knight Lab tools like TimelineJS and StoryMapJS because they interface well with Scalar and provide readers with intuitive interactive experiences.

Digital facsimiles of drafts, publication documents, and reception materials make up a consistent feature of each exhibit, with a gallery of all the cited archival materials at the end of the exhibit. These galleries not only gather the facsimiles in a single, easy-to-view place in the exhibit but also give readers a sense of Gaines’s process of composition and revision. Readers can see how Gaines revised major aspects of his fiction, such as narrative perspective, as well as smaller details, such as his use of repetition or honorifics.

Two of the exhibits include creative works derived from the archival materials. The idea for creative responses developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when access to the archives grew complicated. Because some contributors could not work with the Gaines Center collections hands-on, they instead manipulated them digitally to create new works of literature that suggest how readers can approach Gaines with fresh eyes and use his legacy to cultivate new representations of the regional setting that inspired his fiction.

Work on the exhibits began in three separate graduate courses on research methods between 2019 and 2021. Graduate students had an integral role in developing the project from conceptualization to content creation to editorial intervention. Following Tara McPherson’s (2018) adage, “start wordy, end nerdy” (p. 122), each course began by reading the featured novel 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.

In turn, the 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 historicism, posthumanism, critical race theory, genre theory, and gender studies. The papers they wrote at mid-term became the basis for the collaborative project of building an online exhibit, as each contributor used what they learned in their own research to author keyword entries. In that sense, these exhibits incorporate elements of digital pedagogy and the public humanities as well. Indeed, the first exhibit is featured as a sample assignment in Visualizing Objects, Places, and Spaces: A Digital Project Handbook. Part of the goal was to teach graduate students digital research skills that interface with archival and library research skills. We also wanted to demonstrate how scholarly research methods might engage non-scholarly audiences.

Gaines often said his ideal readers were the Black and white youth of his home state. He hoped his fiction might foster mutual understanding across the social boundaries entrenched in Louisiana’s fraught past. We hope that these exhibits, geared toward high school and college students, might reach his ideal audience and grow it into the future.

Works Cited

Cloutier, Jean-Christophe. Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature. Columbia University Press, 2019. 

Earhart, Amy E. “Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. Vintage Contemporaries, 1983.

McPherson, Tara. Feminist in a Software Lab: Design and Difference. Harvard University Press, 2018. 

Ward, Megan and Adrian S. Wisniscki. “The Archive After Theory.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019. Eds. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Project Review

Adrian S. Wisnicki

Keys to the Archive: Ernest J. Gaines Center Collections, developed by David Squires with his graduate students, presents three digital exhibits on the fiction of Ernest J. Gaines, specifically The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (1993). The exhibits spotlight the collections of The Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, use critical multi-media strategies to introduce key works of fiction by Gaines's to high school- and university-level students, and encourage visitors to reflect on the living legacies of the communities that Gaines depicted. By focusing on a renowned Black author, the exhibits foreground issues of race and diversify archival practices within digital humanities. 

Each exhibit illuminates the given novel by presenting a healthy amount of introductory, contextual, historical, and critical text. Each also pairs such text with a striking array of visual and written archival materials. The exhibits, in ever changing variety, include illustrations, historical and contemporary photographs, manuscripts, typescripts, musical recordings, videos, maps, and much more. Such diverse materials threaten to steal the show at times, but in productive ways that speak directly to the intended high school- and university-level audiences whose worlds are suffused with the likes of Instagram, TikTok, BeReal, and similar visually-centered platforms. The quality and diversity of the project materials also speaks to the care, intentionality, and archival depth with which Squires and his students have developed the exhibits.

Their endeavors center on a series of student-authored keyword entries spanning the three exhibits: 17 in 2019, 7 in 2020, and 8 in 2021. The keyword entries vary by subject matter and length; each reflects the interests, archival work, and critical insights of individual students. While a draft methodology appears elsewhere, embedding and elaborating on the project’s methodology would augment the project’s critical apparatus.

To develop the exhibits, Squires has strategically and seamlessly drawn on a series of open-source and out-of-the-box resources. These include Scalar as the main platform, plus TimelineJS (in the exhibit on Miss Jane Pittman) and StorymapJS (in exhibit on A Gathering of Old Men). As needed, the exhibits also embed image galleries, a YouTube viewer, and, in one instance, an Internet Archive playlist. Scalar makes navigation through the exhibits simple, but also predictable in ways that support the user experience. This includes both the main menu and individual links that take users from section to section. Squires organizes each exhibit in a similar fashion, thereby further enhancing the user's ability to navigate. Scalar also natively allows for exposing image metadata in ways that support individual and collective image study.

At present, the main project link takes users to a page that simply links to the three separate exhibits. It would be good for the project to have a proper home page that a) introduces the exhibits as whole, b) summarizes their contexts, and c) provides a brief biography of Gaines for students who might not be familiar with his work. It would also be helpful if the individual exhibits linked back to the main home page, which they do not do at present. Squires might also consider including brief annotations for standalone pages with embedded elements. Such pages include recurring ones like “Manuscript and Typescript Drafts,” “Publication Documents,” “Reception Documents,” and one-off pages like the image gallery. Without some basic annotation, these pages may be illegible for users who come upon them randomly.

The exhibits — much to their credit— also reflect a pronounced pedagogical focus, originating out of COVID-era graduate coursework on digital, archival, and library research skills. When paired with the performative engagements with Gaines's fiction that appear elsewhere in the exhibits (see “Traces”), the keywords foreground student endeavor and offer a model for instructors considering similar undertakings. The entries give each student a tangible publication to support future professional career pursuits, but also place single publications within a vibrant, larger professionally-developed context. The entries also exemplify the collective power of digital humanities scholarship and illustrate for students how their individual endeavors might support a more complex, multifaceted critical intervention.

But Squires might consider a different approach to crediting contributions to the project. Each individual exhibition bears the following byline: “By David Squires.” The “Contributors” and other pages, however, make clear that Squires developed the exhibits in collaboration with his students. Of course, it is important to recognize and commend Squires’ vision in developing these exhibits and to note his leadership in guiding the integrated project to publication. However, it would also be helpful to better foreground the project’s collaborative nature. The fact that Squires led a series of student teams over three years — in this reviewer's opinion — actually speaks to his credit and should be highlighted. Adding Creative Commons licenses permitting reuse of primary and secondary materials would also help scholars and teachers know how to use the project material in their own work.

Keys to the Archive makes an important and commendable, pedagogically-centered contribution to the digital humanities archival landscape. The project models rigorous digital engagement with the works of a major American author while drawing on informative critical analysis, elegant project design, significant student contributions, and the use of a variety of carefully-selected archival materials. The project promises to be a very useful resource for high school and university classrooms, but will also support the work of scholars with a variety of relevant interests.

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