Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rereading and Reflecting about Archives

Many literary studies scholars have written about the joys of and value in rereading books. Sven Birkerts, in his Reading Life: Books for the Ages (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2007) is a recent example of such writing. Birkerts suggests that the “decision to re-read a book is not usually an amnesiac’s search for clues about what is lost. More likely it is prompted by some kind flaring up of memory, by a longing to be immersed again in a feeling that we know as important, gratifying, or somehow defining. We return, often, out of curiosity, no question, but also in the hope that something will be given back to us, or reawakened” (p. 22).

Funny, you don’t hear or read about archivists re-reading, for nearly any reasons, their archival classics. There are classics, of course, acknowledged by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) re-issuing a number of them in recent years. SAA hopes, for sure, that someone will go back and read these volumes. Archival educators are using them. Students are being required to read them. No one is musing about these kinds of classics as Birkerts does, and that is too bad.

Personally, I think this is because few archivists read their professional literature, at least in the same fashion that they may read other essays and volumes. Instead, they consult the archival manuals or surf the World Wide Web or post a question to one of their listservs – always looking for some practical insight or answer to a specific query. Maybe this is because many archivists take seriously that they are practicing some kind of science.

Clive James, in his massive Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007), perhaps gets to the substance of the problem: “Science lives in a perpetual present,” James muses, “and must always discard its own past as it advances. (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist. Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, although he did.) The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained. The two forms of knowledge thus have fundamentally different kinds of history. A scientists can revisit the history of the humanities all the time, because it is always alive, and can’t be superseded” (p. 117). I always wince a bit when I hear references to archival science, not because I deny the need for rigor and research, but because I always sense that there is a present-mindedness weakening the kind of reading and re-reading I think is necessary for archivists to do.

James, by the way, in bringing together his forty years of ruminations on philosophy, history, politics, and the arts and his reading of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and essays, has this to offer about the nature of reading: “I have not read everything, nor have I remembered everything I have read. What I tried to do was keep some of it with me and draw lessons from it” (p. 848). That pretty much summarizes why and how I read.


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