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.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like?

Novels, mysteries, and fiction of all sorts are the windows through which the great majority of people understand the world, or at least learn to tolerate it. Exploring bookstores and libraries, one finds increasing evidence that archives and archivists are part of the fictional universe (if not the real one). While studies about the book, libraries, printing, access to information, censorship, privacy, and a host of related topics abound, there are few about archives and archivists. I might have a greater chance of reaching my daughter, pictured here in a whimsical moment, about what archives are about and what archivists do by getting her to read a fictional, and hopefully lively, account than by directing her to one of my own books.

A decade ago, in 1995, for a plenary address before the Association of Australian Archivists, I examined children’s literature, finding that while representations of museums, curators, libraries, and librarians were abundant, there was virtually none of archives and archivists. My point in this presentation was simply that the source of present problems and challenges started in the early days of an individual’s experience, and that if we wanted to have a greater impact or visibility in society this was where we needed to begin. My hope is to be wandering through a bookstore and hear someone in the children’s corner reading aloud the story of “Jimmy, the Archivist” or about the efforts to preserve the original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence. It will be evidence that the archivist’s world has been transformed in a way that the archivist seems, presently, unlikely ever to materialize.

The fact that there are many fictional portrayals of archives and archivists may be more than satisfactory as a testament to the importance of their role in society, even if often the worse stereotypes and characterizations are employed. Of course, most working archivists become highly annoyed at such portrayals, but most would agree that some visibility is better than none. The bigger problem is when historical manuscripts and the work of archivists are confused with libraries, librarians, museums, and museum curators, a problem that is quite common. Martha Cooley’s novel, The Archivist, criticized by many archivists for inaccuracies about the principles and practices of these professionals, is, in some ways, more noteworthy for its cover illustration displaying a stack of books, not documents. Somehow the publisher, guiding the Cooley manuscript through to publication, still did not have a fundamental understanding of the difference between a librarian and archivist.

If an archivist were going to write a novel or mystery portraying an archivist or the work of an archives, what would be the difference between what he or she would write and what a professional writer might compose? Mostly, I suppose, the archivist might work hard to avoid the stereotypical features most writers easily resort to in their portrayal. What are those characteristics? They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people. These features provide a kind of shorthand for both the writer and his or her readers, rather than any plot to demean archivists and their work. Archives, that is the place where the records are stored, are often similarly depicted. They are situated in basements or attics. They are associated with dust and old, useless stuff. They are seen as forgotten places, or as places to put stuff that should, or will, be forgotten. None of this is, of course, anything archivists will probably be very happy with seeing in print.

The stereotypes of archives and archivists are so prevalent that even people, who know better, such as scholars like historians, will resort to such notions. Many of the most knowledgeable historians, experienced in archival research, often tend to acknowledge their debts to the staffs of these programs by relishing details like dusty, even when such places are well kept. It is part of the romantic appeal of doing research in such repositories that scholars tend to glory in, perhaps because they want to assume an Indiana Jones-like persona. Whatever the reasons, archivists are surrounded, buried in, layers of stereotypes, that they can hardly see their way through. But, still the question might be, what is the ideal way, if there is an ideal way that the archivist might be brought to life in a realistic fashion?

This is a question, of course, that most writers address in their reflections on their craft. Nearly every writer who has mused about what they do argue that people wanting to be writers must compose from their experiences, they must write about what they know. Some suggest that everything written, at least everything purporting to be fiction, is, to some extent, autobiographical. It is enough that anyone who considers their self a writer ought to be afraid to admit that to friends and relatives, people who will begin to pour over their stories and novels to find out what has been written about them. I don’t know whether this is totally true or not, although I accept that anyone writing has to include something of their own life or experience or sensibilities into their compositions. This suggests we could look carefully at professional journals even to test this out, but that is something needing some additional consideration. Is the essay purporting to be a study of archival users, an analysis of the construction of a finding aid, or an investigation into the history of a repository written without some imaginative devices drawn from personal experiences?

But to return to the matter at hand, what would the archivist, writing a novel, do in portraying a fictional archivist? Would the person be old or young, male or female, outgoing or withdrawn, neatly attired or disheveled, scholarly or dull, and so forth? What such questions are addressing, of course, relates to the matter of whether the archivist engaging in fiction is doing it to create a better professional image or trying to grapple with some more fundamental human questions? Maybe their main aim is to just tell a good story. If someone writing the great novel depicting an archivist provided a somewhat honest view of what really goes on in archives, would the average reader be able to identify with that character? It seems to me that the popular notions of archivists and archival work are so ingrained as to require a writer to at least confront, in some creative fashion, these stereotypes.

We can probe into the issue of depicting someone like an archivist by considering fictional accounts of others who may bear some resemblance to the archivist. What come to mind are novels about academics.

When one thinks about academic novels, David Lodge is the author who most readily comes to mind. Clearly, his focus, university English departments, with their famous internal squabbles, arcane theoretical debates, and scholarship suggesting that the last thing that faculty and their students will ever admit to is any joy in reading. Others come to mind, as well, such as Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, and Alexander McCall Smith – all picking subjects residing either in English departments or closely related academic units. Smith’s stories follow the antics of three German linguists, with dialogue sure to confirm everyone’s worse suspicions about the misguided activities of university professors. Indeed, in Smith’s three collections of stories, no students are present, and that must be purposeful, as his protagonists seem so pre-occupied with themselves or their academic competition with each other that they scarcely have time for anyone else in their lives.

Academic novels teach us some valuable pointers for the budding author of the great archives novel. The most obvious point must be how the writers can easily mirror the real life work and lives of faculty. For example, think of the faculty meeting, the venue where the weirdest things can be publicly and shamelessly stated, spread over hours, with no decisions, consensus, or insights. Anyone who has sat through such meetings realize that recordings and transcriptions could supply a television sitcom for years and provide the material for creative writing for countless books for many years.

We can go beyond the faculty meeting, although no respective academic fiction can avoid it, and consider academic courses, dress, scholarship, and personal quirks all with great promise and utility. Everyone knows that the great university is still home to many who have no hope of making a living in any other part of the world, adding to the amusement evident in the most recent trend in university administrators’ thinking or rhetoric, to reform their institutions into the corporate model. Assuming that a business is intended to make some degree of financial profit, it is wonderful to envision our splendid group of professors contributing to the profit line. Most experienced academics know that to transform their departments into business would be a sure way of killing their programs in a relatively short time – but the rhetoric and posturing along the way would be fun.

Thinking of academic fiction is perfect for thinking about its archival counterpart, since so many archivists work in academic institutions. Indeed, a thread to work with here is that so many academic archivists are frustrated academics, people who spend years preparing for a teaching career and life of quiet solitude only to discover there were no jobs or they were, despite opportunities, unemployable as academics for some reason.