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, October 31, 2006

Why Buildings Remind Us About Records

Lots of different things speak to us, providing texts for understanding what has happened in both the distant and near past. As Alain de Botton tells us in his The Architecture of Happiness (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), ISBN 0-375-42443-1, any “house [where we have resided for a time or in some way have come to know] has grown into a knowledgeable witness”(p. 10). Seeking to discover what makes a building truly beautiful to us, De Botton also helps us comprehend why we often interact with buildings as not just artistic statements or functional structures but as critical documents of human activity. Thinking of buildings as documents is important, especially as such a process also will help archivists or scholars better understand the limitations of textual and visual records in documenting any aspect of society leaving behind such notable physical artifacts as buildings.

Buildings serve, among other things, as an important component of the many memory devices in our society. As the author argues, “The desire to remember unites our reasons for building for the living and for the dead. As we put up tombs, markers and mausoleums to memorialize lost loved ones, so do we construct and decorate buildings to help us recall the important but fugitive parts of ourselves” (p. 124). We certainly sense this when we gaze upon museums and libraries, structures sometimes competing directly with the collections they store, but we also can wonder why so few critical reflections have appeared on the role of architecture in archival repositories. Consider, for example, that a national or organizational archives can be represented as being a representation of some pride, while the documents within provide evidence of many activities no one would point to with any pride (unless the records have been strenuously sanitized). Our increasing sensitivity to the purposeful destruction of libraries, museums, and archives will probably result in such analysis.

Yet, there are some profound differences in the notion of architecture as witness to that represented by the typical archival repository. De Botton suggests that “If buildings can act as a repository of our ideals, it is because they can be purged of all the infelicities that corrode ordinary lives. A great work of architecture will speak to us of a degree of serenity, strength, poise and grace to which we, both as creators and audiences, typically cannot do justice – and it will for this very reason beguile and move us. Architecture excites our respect to the extent that it surpasses us” (p. 137). Does this mean that a great archives must provide the documentary equivalent of such serenity and grace? What archives hold are, however, more dense and complex. Records provide a window into pain and happiness, truths and fictions, acts of compassion and extreme cruelty – in other words, the entire range of human emotions and activities leading us to leave behind a documentary trace. De Botton provides a sense of this when he states, “When buildings talk, it is never with a single voice. Buildings are choirs rather than soloists; they possess a multiple nature from which arise opportunities for beautiful consonance as well as dissension and discord” (p. 217). This latter assessment could be easily used to depict the many voices emanating from within the countless documents held within archives, and it suggests some interesting possibilities for evaluating the most appropriate architecture housing archives.

Reading about architecture also prompts other reflections on some profound issues concerning records. Consider, for example, de Botton’s assessment of how architects relate to engineers, suggesting that architects “perceived that the engineers were capable of providing them with a critical key to their salvation – for what these men had, and they so sorely lacked, was certainty. The engineers had landed on an apparently impregnable method of evaluating the wisdom of a design: they felt confidently able to declare that a structure was correct and honest in so far as it performed its mechanical functions efficiently; and false and immoral in so far as it was burdened with non-supporting pillars, decorative statues, frescos or carvings” (p. 51). Here we have, perhaps, a substantially different way of examining the relationship between archivists and software engineers (and other builders of recordkeeping systems). While de Botton notes the tensions between engineers and architects, especially in their different roles, he also obviously provides a sense of peaceful cohabitation. This has yet to occur with archivists and the information technologists, even though some archivists and others (David Bearman and Margaret Hedstrom, for example) have sensed that the development of cooperative relationships with the two might help archivists to achieve much more in the digital environment than they ever accomplished in the analog world. For the moment, however, there remains suspicion and conflict, with one side (the archivists) worrying about the demise of a cultural record and the other (the technologists) wondering what all the fuss is about with some old documents when their focus is on efficient delivery of information.

Finally, there may be another, even more basic similarity between architecture and archives – the notion of order. De Botton provides this sense of the importance of order in architecture: “Order contributes to the appeal of almost all substantial works of architecture. So fundamental is this quality, in fact, that it is written into even the most modest of projects at their very inception, in careful diagrams of electricity circuits and pipework, in elevations and plans – documents of beauty in which every cable and door frame has been measured and in which, though we may fail to grasp the exact meaning of certain symbols and numbers, we may nonetheless sense, and delight in the overwhelming presence of precision and intent” (p. 178). In the same way, there is an underlying order to records. Archivists seek for that order, in both organizational and personal records, and try to preserve and describe it since it provides evidence of its own right. Documents themselves, even when seemingly jumbled up, convey some inherent order, in their structure, the use of paper and ink (or binary code and computer), and even in the use of words. It is probably in this documentary order that we can begin to see the beauty of archives and therein find our happiness in them.