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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Signing Off

Spruce Head, Maine, 2009

This is my last post on Reading Archives, by my calculation the 250th post since I started this two and a half years ago. I have been thinking about doing this for some time, and recent comments about indexing the site and upgrading it in other ways helped to speed up the process.

Doing this has always been a personal pleasure, for I have always been an avid reader, and I constantly am in search of references to archives in order to enhance my own understanding of archives and their importance to society. I have also been disappointed that the blog did not generate more discussion about publications about archives, but it is obvious that few in the archival community either have the inclination or the time to contribute in such ways (this is not intended as criticism, just a statement of fact).

It is time for me to move on. Early next year I turn 60 years of age, and I move into my final decade as an academic member of the archival profession. I also am just finishing a three year stint as the LIS Program Chair, and I have various of my own research projects piled up in various states of incompleteness that I need (and want) to finish. Other personal issues have emerged as well, so it is the right time to bring this project to a close.

I will leave the blog up for whatever value it has. And I thank those of you who have commented and sent encouraging support. Now, it is my aim to have more time to paint and write.

Records, Historic Sites, and Public Memory

Seth C. Bruggeman, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).

Archivists are becoming fascinated with how they and their repositories connect (or don’t connect) to local communities. Bruggeman’s study of the supposed birthplace of our first president is also an analysis of how historians relate to the making of historical meaning, in this case examining the debate over the relevance and accuracy of the birthplace of Washington. Bruggeman states that he has written a history “part social, part cultural, and several parts intellectual” (p. 9). Much of this study concerns the battle over a reconstruction of the birthplace house which seems to have been built in the wrong place and in a manner looking nothing like the original house seemed to be, but which nonetheless became the center of both Washington’s boyhood interpretation and a contest between local residents, historians, and site staff. There have been other complicating factors, ones that have plagued other historic sites as well, such as how to interpret slavery and race at sites that have taken on iconic and even religious overtones as well as the battles and tensions between historical and museum professionals with the activities of well-intentioned amateurs and community activists.

Bruggeman’s book is an excellent case study of historic site interpretation and collective memory, part of a growing scholarly literature that those interested in archives ought to be familiar (but which very few of the latter seem to be well-versed in). Such studies, and Bruggeman’s is no exception, often offering commentary on the value and use of records and record generating technologies. Here are some examples. In trying to understand how late 19th century Americans were relating to the increasing number of historic sites and parks, Bruggeman writes: “No turn-of-the-century technology brought American object fetishism into relief more so than the easy-use personal camera. The practice of taking postmortem photographs of departed loved ones – common during the turn of the nineteenth century – was perhaps the most striking permutation of the same phenomenon responsible for the Washington reliquary rings of a century prior and the grand pilgrimages of centuries long past” (p. 57). Later on, in describing some of the debates between the private citizen Memorial Association and the National Park Service, Bruggeman how certain of the Memorial Association’s records, upon their transfer to the National Park Service were discovered to be missing (either the result of careless management or purposeful destruction).Bruggeman, when considering the running of the Washington birthplace site by the more professional and bureaucratic Park Service also notes that the latter’s records “grow increasingly impersonal” in comparison of what is reflected in the records of the Memorial Association (p. 177). The donation, in 1996, of the records of another citizen group, the Wakefield Memorial Association, to the National Park Service is seen as the final stage of private groups administering the historic site.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Antiques, Sort of Like Archives

Leon Rosenstein, Antiques: The History of an Idea (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

Archivists, interested in the history and nature of collecting, will want to peruse this book on antiques by former philosophy professor and owner of an antiques business with his wife. Rosenstein contends with the concept of antiques, more complicated than one might think. He provides this definition: “An antique is a primarily handcrafted object of rarity and beauty that, by means of its associated provenance and its agedness as recognized by means of its style and material endurance, has the capacity to generate and preserve for us the image of a world now past” (p. 14). Later he provides an extended discussion of the ten criteria of what makes something antique, and archivists will discover elements that are similar to their notion of archives (including completeness, authenticity, and provenance).

Rosenstein gives us a useful review of the shifting notion of the antique over the past two thousand years, with some effort to relate antiques to civilization and human nature, such as “The antique’s form – its style and aged, enduring corporeality – enables our imagination to fancy in it the subjective spirit hibernating there. To live among the handmade is to live among the human. And particularly, to live perceptively and sensitively among the great creations of the past is to live among the historicality and universality of the human, for antiques are the materially immanent indicators of universal human historicality” (p. 37). Rosenstein’s historical analysis also suggests some connections with the development of archives, such as when he writes that the “appreciation of the antique in America during the 1890-1915 generation moved from the interest in antiques as mere curiosities and talismans with historical or cultural references . . . to an appreciation of antiques as objects having peculiar artistic and aesthetic properties as well, objects that were evocative of the past and of the world of early America and also beyond America” (pp. 142-143). This is, of course, the same era when state government archives began to be established and scientific history viewing such archives as laboratories.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Surviving the Past

Wojciech Tochman, Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia, translated by Antonio Lloyd-Jones (New York: Atlas and Co., 2008).

Sarah E. Wagner, To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

War is a strange, compelling, and common human activity. It destroys individuals and community memory, but also compels us to discover new ways of remembering people and preserving societal memory. Two recent books on the recent war and genocide in Bosnia gives us a glimpse of the nature of war and its impact on the comprehension of the past (with some implications for the understanding of archival evidence).

Reporter and writer Tochman provides a personal, heart-rending account of the mass murders in Bosnia and subsequent efforts to identify the recovered bodies (or fragments of the bodies). He confronts the issues of identification, and remembrance, and the processes by which these issues are engaged. Tochman provides a first hand account of the use of DNA testing to identify remains, and he puts this into the historical context of warfare: “DNA testing is something new in the history of war. So are body bags, computers, the Internet, computerized cold stores, forklift trucks, and trays on wheels. Apart from that, it has all happened before: prison camps, barracks, selections, ghettoes, hiding places, the sheltering of victims, armbands, piles of shoes left behind by victims of mass murder, hunger, looting, late-night knocks on doors, people disappearing from their homes, blood on the walls, the burning of farmsteads, burning barns with people inside, massacres of entire villages, besieged cities, human shields, the raping of women, the killing of educated people first, columns of refugees, mass executions, mass graves, mass exhumations, international tribunals, and people disappearing completely” (p. 21). If one examines closely this list of attributes, it is easy to ascertain how many aspects relate to issues of documentation and memory.

Tochman also provides some perspective of how fleeting our interest in genocidal atrocities can be: “Thousands of news reports, feature articles, exhibitions, books, photo albums, and documentary and feature films have been produced on the war in Bosnia. But when the war ended (or, as some people think, was suspended for a while), the reporters packed up their cameras and headed off to other wars” (p. 4). This suggests that what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s will be forgotten, but another book, this one by anthropologist Sarah Wagner, suggests otherwise.

Wagner’s study focuses on the use of DNA technology, but she expands this to see “how memory and imagination intersect with biotechnology” (p. 2). As an added bonus, Wagner contends that the forensic work represents a major breakthrough in identifying victims of terror and disaster. Wagner carefully documents how the Serbs sought to eradicate any possibility of the identification of the identity of the victims by creating “secondary mass graves,” re-burials where the decaying bodies were broken apart and scattered (this is described as a “new kind of atrocity, heretofore unknown to humankind: the phenomenon of secondary mass graves” [p. 84]). She becomes interested in the idea of absence: “I begin with the basic idea that to be missing is to be absent both in time and in space. For surviving family members, conceptualizing the missing person’s absence involves mediating memories, imagination, hope, and resignation. In this heightened state of ambiguity, the missing relative’s existence is caught in a web of memory and suggestion” (p. 7). Wagner moves back and forth between the DNA testing and the efforts by relatives and friends to identify body parts through shreds of clothing and physical characteristics.

There are many references to other kinds of formal recordkeeping, such as the use of case files from the Podrinje Identification Project, the compilation of books of photographs of missing individuals and images of clothing and personal objects rescued from the mass graves of the murdered individuals, and the use of images and objects at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center. At one point Wagner relates how family members protested the issuance of death certificates by the Red Cross based on information provided by Bosnian Serb leaders, a process taken up as a means of assisting the victims’ families to be able to obtain welfare assistance but objected to because “it also allowed the organization to remove individuals’ names from the overall list of missing” (p. 91). In fact, Wagner attests to how before the war most of the eventual victims had little in the way of records other than just a birth certificate and now they were being thoroughly documented with considerable personal data (clothing, dental records, identity cards, family remembrances, and so forth), a catalogue of the victims and a new source of public and family memory.

Wagner’s study provides an interesting examination of how traditional documentary sources mesh with scientific tests such as DNA and affirm individual and collective memory: “For most of the Srebrenica cases, resolving absence – both absence of knowledge and absence of physical remains – depends on the intersection between memory and the results of genetic testing” (p. 173). The anthropologist contends that the “family members’ recollections represent testimony, while DNA profiles serve as documentary proof” (p. 173). Wagner also places the use of the DNA testing and the related efforts to gather evidence about the missing into the context of government authority and rebuilding of the means of control over people living within that government (especially as the Bosnian uses of DNA technology have been used in other instances of mass deaths (such as World Trade Center, the tsunami in 2002, and Hurricane Katrina). While this author does not explore the expanding literature on the nature of power, control, and memory in the establishment and employment of archives, To Know Where He Lies certainly adds to our understanding of such issues.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Black Roots

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African American Reclaimed Their Past (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009).

Historian Gates offers us this book based on his television series African American Lives, and if you watched any of these episodes you got the book. Each chapter on one of the prominent African Americans, such Oprah Winfrey or Chris Tucker, follows the same pattern. Gates tell us why the individual is extraordinary or interesting, what they know about their own family’s past (usually muddled or based on soon to be unsubstantiated claims), tracks us through the available records and the gaps, describes the reactions of the individuals, and then reports on the results (sometimes inconclusive) of the DNA tests. There is a kind of gee whiz sameness about each of the portraits, and although one can understand this since it is intended for a popular audience, it does get old.

There are interesting tidbits about archives and their importance. Right from the start, Gates acknowledges that his interest in history stems from when his grandfather in 1960 showed him scrapbooks full of clippings about local Black history in Cumberland, Maryland. Among these, he had “collected hundreds of obituaries; those scrapbooks were like an archive, decade by decade, of Cumberland’s colored dead” (p. 3). Gates also clearly describes the challenges of doing research in African American history: “Slavery – the lives and times of the human beings who were slaves – remains the great abyss in African American genealogical history. In spite of an avalanche of scholarship since the late 19060s, the lives of individual slaves – almost four million by 1860 – remain something of a historical void” (p. 6). Gates, in a number of places in the book, describes how only documentary fragments survive, sometimes intentionally, and how DNA testing and projects like the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (the compilation of records of shipping firms from 1517 to 1866) have helped to fill in some of the documentary gaps.

What does come through loud and clear is the remarkable personal satisfaction that the discovery of certain records can provide. In his chapter on Quincy Jones and his family, Gates writes, “I firmly believe that knowing about your ancestors is a grounding experience. It can bring tremendous peace, especially to African Americans, as we have had so much of our past systemically stolen from us. But, of course, the process can also open old wounds” (p. 49). In his chapter on Peter J. Gomes, Gates recounts the discovery of a 1782 deed of emancipation: “Finding a document such as this is a deeply emotional experience. My face flushed as I read it. And it is as rare as rare can be” (p. 121). I doubt we can expect this book to have anywhere near the impact Alex Haley’s Roots, book and television mini-series, had on genealogy and the demand for archival sources three decades ago, but it is a safe bet that the efforts by Gates will generate renewed attention to African American archives and their use.

Monday, May 04, 2009

After Photography

Fred Ritchin, After Photography (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2009).

The nature of photography and the photograph has changed remarkably in a very brief time. The photographic image is no longer fixed in any meaningful fashion and how photography is employed is a sea change away from how it used to be. Fred Ritchin, professor of photography at New York University, offers an engaging book about the new nature of photography. His “book makes no attempt at prophecy. It is rather an attempt to acknowledge the rapidly evolving present for what it is and what it might become, while engaging one of the less violent strategies for social change still extant: media” (p. 10). As such, Ritchin ranges back and forth between the problems and promises posed by the new digital photography, providing a good sense of what archivists, librarians, and museum curators face in dealing with the new photography.

Ritchin provides a clue as to when the digital photographic era was birthed: “If I had to pick a date when the digital era came to photography, it would be 1982. It was then that National Geographic’s staff modified a horizontal photograph of the pyramids of Giza and made it vertical, suitable for the magazine’s February cover. They electronically moved a section of the photograph depicting one of the pyramids to a position partially behind another pyramid, rather than next to it. It was a banal change – after all, the original photograph was an already romanticized version of the scene that excluded the garbage, tourist buses, and souvenir hawkers – but it opened the digital door” (p. 27). This is close in time to when the new era of electronic records work also emerged, when we shifted from worrying about the output of large mainframe computers to the products of the personal computer beginning to appear on everyone’s desks at work and home.

Ritchin’s book is an interesting exploration of the challenges archivists now face in preserving something of the modern (postmodern?) photographic documentation. Photography is a dynamic process: “Increasingly, much of the photographic process will occur after the shutter is released. The photograph becomes the initial research, an image draft, as vulnerable to modification as it has always been to recontextualization” (p. 34). Ritchin comments on how publishers and the news media have been reluctant to impose understandable limits on the manipulation of images, and the challenges this poses in the multiple ways in which digital images can be displayed, interpreted, transformed, and so forth. He notes how news photographers, now reliant on the digital cameras, merely click and send immediately images of what is happening around them, no longer having the time to sort through and interpret the pictures they have taken.

Ritchin drives home his point about the malleability of the digital image at every opportunity in his book: “The digital photograph, unlike the analog, is based not on an initial static recording of continuous tones to be viewed as whole, or teased out in the darkroom, but on creating discrete and malleable records of the visible that can and will be linked, transmitted, recontextualized, and fabricated” (p. 141). Without question, the implications for archives can be immense: “Many digital photographers may be erasing pictures they don’t like, so there’s no permanent record. And the storage of the images depends upon having available software decades later in order to be able to correctly reconstruct the 0’s and 1’s stored on a disc.” (pp. 144-145). While Ritchin might have explored some of the options archivists have been exploring in maintaining digital stuff, emulation and migration, what he has presented is enough for archivists to mull over when they consider how they will deal with this new visual media. I have heard of too many archivists who have stopped working with photographic documentation after 1980 because of the kinds of digital issues described by Ritchin in his book.

The book is richly illustrated and the choices of illustrations nicely serve to underscore his main points.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Unraveling the Literary Archive

Anita Helle, ed., The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

Helle introduces this volume by stating that it is intended to reflect recent scholarship on the tragic writer Plath, mostly building around archives and memory. The essays seek “to enlarge and enrich the contexts of Plath’s writing with the archive as its informing matrix, unraveling tangled connections backward to the middle decades of the twentieth century and forward to issues raised by contemporary literary and cultural criticism” (p. 1). Helle’s use of the phrase “archival matters” is interesting, noting that it “coincides with the turn toward historiographic textual and material research; there has been a growing recognition that much of what we thought we knew – and didn’t know – about Plath has gradually come to be part of a wider conversation about culture, history, and memory for which archival material and expanded definitions of the archive provide support” (p. 2).

These essays provide interesting peeks into the nature of literary archives. Tracy Brain comments on the fact that Plath manuscripts are spread around the world, “constructed posthumously and piecemeal – even haphazardly – from materials that have been donated or sold by those who are willing to part with them; but many more materials are not there and have instead been lost or discarded or retained in private hands” (p. 19). Brain argues that this is part of the indeterminacy of the Plath writings, and the challenges posed to those studying her work. This scholar also suggests that Plath deliberately misdated and rearranged her literary manuscripts in order to create a certain impression about how her work had evolved and how it had been composed.

Other essays by these literary scholars peek into the meaning of the archive as conceived by writers such as Plath and as reconceptualized by scholars following their leads. Robin Peel’s essay on Plath’s political education builds on her early personal papers held by the Lilly Library: “This archive includes small personal diaries Plath kept as a young girl, hard-backed notebooks in which Plath made notes for her Smith courses, secretarial-type notepads on which she made journalist notes from talks given by visiting speakers, and her own copies of college textbooks, some of which are annotated very heavily in bold ink in the manner characteristic of students eager to learn” (p. 40). Kathleen Connors writes about research in the Plath materials in the Lilly and Smith Archives to gain an understanding of Plath’s interest in the visual arts (especially her diaries with sketches). Kate Moses investigates recordings of Plath reading her poetry and other writings. Anita Helle provides an analysis of photographic images of Plath and their possible connections to Plath’s writings, how the images of the places she lived and worked were shaped into the memories of the places she wrote about in her poems and essays. Lynda K. Bundtzen considers the destruction of some of Plath’s journals and other manuscripts by Ted Hughes and Plath herself, musing on her poem entitled “Burning the Letters.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Photographic Sketches

Anthony W. Lee and Elizabeth Young, On Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Gardner’s photographs were published in 1866 in two volumes at the then enormous sale price of $150. While the publishing venture was a failure, the Gardner photographs ultimately emerged as one of the most groups of photographs depicting the American Civil War. As Lee, an art historian, and Young, a literary scholar, analyze the Sketch Book, they remind us that very little has been written about it.

Lee considers the images in the book, arguing that Gardner managed to go beyond the limitations of the then young technology to capture the “disruptive, disjointed, and retrospective experience of war” (p. 9). Lee places Gardner in the context of the nature of photography as an emerging profession, relying on taking portraits (certainly a major staple of the photographer active in the Civil War) and just beginning to see the possibilities of the landscape: “The Photographic Sketch Book represented a new venture in that Gardner, a photographer with a sense of recent trends in camera work and his place within them, wanted to visualize the war and make that visualization central to its telling. The view was the new mode and carried a professional meaning – more institutional, more weighty, more national, more legitimate – as the photographer tried to make a place for his craft” (p. 16). Gardner, as Lee reminds us, joined a legion of journalists and sketch artists, many working for magazines, all bent on reporting on and documenting the visual features of the war.

Lee’s comparison of the sketch journalists, who could be on the spot quickly recording events, with the photographers, who often, with their heavy equipment, had less range and fewer options. Gardner’s photographs are “descriptions of key sites, they are also about an effort at imaginative recovery and, even more, prodigious attempts to signal an action nowhere present” (p. 26). Gardner, and other photographers of this period, learned to work within the limitations of the technology and even to use these restrictions as partial commentaries on the subject: “Perhaps the photographer’s confrontation with death helped trigger this sensibility, but it is equally the case that it grew out of the restrictions of camera-work in the war theater. For photographs are like corpses insofar as they are representations of past or even lost things . . . and the melancholy they trigger in us is related to out inability to hear or touch or smell anymore; we can only see, very provisionally, the ghostly things within them” (p. 31).

While Lee notes how ignored Gardner’s volume was at the time of its publication, Young, the literary, describes why she believes the volume’s text deserves to be read on its own and why it was intended to be read in this way as well, although it has also been neglected as a document of the Civil War. Also, every photograph and other illustration came surrounded by words: “Illustrated newspapers converted photographs into engravings and surrounded them with words; stereoscope cards covered the reverse side with words; photographic portraits included the name of the studio and the subject, and sometimes more complex texts. . . “ (p. 58). She likens the use of words in Gardner’s book to the literary genre of the sketch featuring the “traits” of “visual partiality, digressive plot, and compositional haste” (think of Washington Irving, for example) (p. 59). Young then carries us through a close reading of the text in Gardner’s photographic book, demonstrating how his language describing the images often reflect the attitudes and biases of his day (or, at the least, comment on them). Some may think that Young is over-reading the text, but in her quest to find “new meanings constructed from words” (p. 94) we also discover new ways of thinking about the images and their depiction of past events.

This volume is the first number in the series Defining Moments in American Photography being published by the University of California Press. Here is the description of the series: “This series investigates key photographers and images in the history of American photography. It reshapes that history with attention to race, gender, and class; brings focused and accessible studies of American photography to a wide audience; places American photography at the center of American visual culture; and brings into dialogue writers from art history, American studies, cultural studies, gender studies, literary studies, and American history.” There are two other volumes published, and the information on the series can be found at Archivists will want to follow these publications and what they offer about our understanding of photography as record.