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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fictional Archives

One can read interesting references to archives and records in novels, mysteries, and short stories. As so much fiction is based on real life, these references to documents often provide interesting perspectives and insights into the archival enterprise, as a few references here will demonstrate.

Ester Cohen’s novel about a ghost writer, Book Doctor: A Novel (New York: Counterpoint, 2005), provides a couple of references to the creating and collecting of documents. Cohen has her protagonist reflecting on her joy in receiving letters: “I’ve always loved letters. Receiving them especially. Even a handwritten envelope has a real satisfaction. And the promise that something personal or revealing, something written only for me, is inside. Maybe that’s why I am a Book Doctor” (p. 92). I suspect a lot of us react similarly to such a sentiment. I know I do. In fact, I love mail in general, including even sorting the junk mail with its catalogs and various special offers. Of course, book catalogs are my personal favorite.

Cohen also provides an interesting glimpse into the nature of collecting, describing the book doctor’s background in this fashion: “As a child, she began a post card collection. She didn’t collect pictures, but the handwritten messages that people wrote to one another. In the junk stores she went to very often with her mother, she would read note after note about vacations, about sickness, even death, about love and plans. They were usually written with dark black ink, an ink that stayed alive years after the writer died. She loved the sentences, and the hands that made them. She imagined people writing, in small rooms everywhere, sending friends small pieces of a story. Imagining those stories occupied much of her childhood. She kept the postcards in shoeboxes. Thousands of them still sat in her mother’s attic. And she still bought them” (pp. 129-130). Most archivists will testify to collections like this that they have evaluated, often in situ in the attics, for their repositories, and some will even admit that the faint origins of their own archival careers rest in collecting like this that they did when they were younger. And some of us still love to plow through antique shops and flea markets, examining laptop writing desks, old file cabinets, antique fountain pens, and other objects associated with the archival impulse.

Another fictional account, in this case Joanne Dobson’s The Maltese Manuscript (Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press, 2006), builds around English professor Karen Pelletier, who reflects in this way about the preservation of books: “All of them inscribed in ink on paper and held in trust for the present and the future. And who had done the keeping? Librarians with lost names, nowhere stamped on book spines. Generation after generation of custodians of the book. Decades, centuries of individuals dedicated to transmitting the accumulated cogitations and imaginings of the collective consciousness. Dim, dusty, ghostly, now, those librarians of the past, but, then as now, with absolute power over books” (p. 267). The notion of absolute power might be a stretch and the references to dust irritating, but in this Dobson captures something of the preservation sensibility, for librarians, curators, and archivists alike. In such a sentiment we can detect something of the archivist as well, as we do with her comments when she learns that a librarian had been involved in the theft of books and manuscripts: “I may be naïve, but I like to think that the library is the one pure institution we have left, the one that still exists solely to serve the public, the one we can trust absolutely to pass on knowledge from one generation to another. Now here was this weak, dishonest . . . seduced . . . librarian. This custodian of the book who’d failed her trust” (p. 270).

An even more interesting novel concerning records is that of South African Shaun Johnson, The Native Commissioner (Johannesburg, South Africa: Penguin Books, South Africa, 2006), a novel building around a large box of records of the main character’s father who committed suicide (and given to me as a present by South African archivist Verne Harris). Suggesting that the box is like an “archaeological anthropological site” (p. 4), the son, reading through the box, reflects: “By the time I was able to conjure the voices from the ward [where his father spent part of his last days] and the kitchen, I had already spent months on my project. I had read the letters from dozens of thick paper-clipped bundles, looked at hundreds of photographic slides neatly ordered in old-fashioned plastic circular canisters. I had pored over scrapbooks, yellowed newspaper cuttings, programmes and souvenirs of theatre shows long forgotten, speeches, stories written in another age. I had put together scraps of diaries, read school reports, seen medical accounts, old bills; I had fingered the faded insignias of rank from wartime. I had listened to tape recordings, hours upon hours of them, from an Africa and Europe of earlier generations; heard the scratchy radio announcements of the times, the voices of politicians long dead. I had touched the locks of hair even, found amateur poems shyly written then hidden so long ago. I had immersed myself in this private cornucopia, an extraordinary archive of an ordinary family which happened to be my own; it had unlocked in me memories I did not know I had” (p. 46). Later in the novel, the protagonist discovers that there are documentary gaps in the box. “My mother had hoarded plenty of documents from the Witbank years, but there were unsatisfactory, tantalizing gaps along the way, suggesting to me that in my father’s troubled state he must have begun not to write things down so diligently, so there was less for her to squirrel away. In Witbank the papers became more wayward: swathes of rich detail interspersed with silences, holes” (p. 142). These gaps send the narrator back into the national archives looking for more evidence.

While sometimes archivists scour through fiction looking for references to their profession, and often becoming irritated at the ways in which they are depicted, novels and mysteries often provide perceptive glimpses into the human tendencies to create and preserve documents.