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.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Doodling in the Oval Office

We all find documents in archives that amuse us, prompting us to figure out ways to put them on display in exhibition case (although sometimes discretion cause us to change our minds, instead making private references to them at dinner parties and hotel bars during conferences). The creators of Cabinet Magazine have compiled a book most archivists will wish they had written themselves. Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles & Scrawls from the Oval Office (New York: Basic Books, 2006), ISBN 10-465-03266-4, not only provides ample illustrations that are engaging, amusing, and illuminating, but the book provides a fairly serious examination of this form of presidential recordkeeping.

Paul Collins, described as the “Doodler-in-Chief” as author of the book’s foreword, considers why he thinks we find doodles “so compelling”: “If they are significant, it is not because they are great art or the products of great men. It is because they are ordinary, and historians have fought to preserve open-access laws so that presidential doodles can be so ordinary. Anyone can view them – they belong to us. And when we view them, we see that they resemble our own words and our own idle lines. The drawing or scrawled comment on a yellow pad is like an ancient cave painting: a familiar image, but from an unimaginable distance of time and situation” (p. 11). Reading this book, and viewing the copious examples of doodles, will make us think twice about our own scratching done while sitting through a meeting or talking on the telephone.

There is also an interesting essay on the history of presidential doodles by David Greenberg, with some intriguing assessments of these documents. He writes, “Presidential doodles are intriguing, above all, because they provide us with a glimpse of the unscripted president. They’re the antithesis of the packaged persona. Made with neither help from speechwriters not vetting by a focus group, a doodle is the ultimate private act; its meaning may remain opaque even to the doodler himself. As a result, it renders the president human in ways that a staged family outing cannot. And if we can’t make conclusive judgments about what a president’s drawings reveal about his innermost fears or fantasies, his doodles can still be suggestive and provocative. They’re of interest cumulatively: side by side, the scores of doodles in this book reveal the range and diversity of the styles and mental habits of the men who have led this country. Collectively they help in a benign and inviting way to demystify the office – to build a bridge between citizen and leader” (p. 24). This is an apt description, especially in how it captures the kind of documents most archivists and the researchers in archives hope to hold in their hands.

Greenberg also offers some explanation for why presidential doodles seem to have increased in number: “History became professionalized in modern times, placing new importance on bureaucratic record-keeping. The executive branch exploded in size, creating larger, longer, and more frequent meetings in which a president might find himself with just a pen or pencil to occupy him. Improvements in photocopying meant more paper lying around. The telephone became an indispensable tool, leaving nervous presidential hands idle” (p. 26). Doodling is not an off-hand, superfluous exercise – not any more lighthearted than what happens with the creation of graffiti. It is a documentary form we ought to want to keep and a form we should be always on the lookout for.

Every archivist or records manager should have this book sitting on their shelves, if for no other reason than to doodle in while they are on the telephone. And it is fun to page through. It made me wonder what our incumbent president might have been doodling while he met with his advisors the morning after the elections!