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, December 06, 2006

Found Archives

Davy Rothbart’s book, Found: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items From Around the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), ISBN-13-978-0-7432-5114-3, may seem like an odd source to look for a commentary on the nature of the archive. But maybe not.

Rothbart, the creator of the popular Found magazine, has pulled together in this volume some of the more interesting found objects, some gathered by him but many others sent in from other people. It is his observations about these items that suggest a kind of archival function in his endeavors. He writes, “Since grade school I’ve been collecting notes, letters, photographs, and other stuff I found on the ground.” Indeed, this publication includes examples of those kinds of documents and diaries, cartoons and drawings, wills, grocery lists, greeting cards, notices, school papers, and postcards. Rothbart continues, “It always amazed me how powerfully I could connect with a person I’d never met just by reading a half-page love letter left behind on a park bench or the city bus” (p. 1). Isn’t this what it is like to read a document in an archives, enabling us to connect with real people long gone in the past?

The evidence offered in Found suggests a lot about how people relate to archival materials. Continuing with his introductory notes, Rothbart suggests, “Found notes and letters open up the entire range of human experience; they offer a shortcut directly into people’s minds and hearts. We often feel most alive when we’re glimpsing someone at their most honest and raw” (p. 2). Of course, if we react in this manner to such tossed materials, why have people discarded them to begin with? And, does this suggest that society might see archives as the formerly discarded, or, at least, might this explain why sometimes it is so difficult to be successful in explaining archives within an organization?

Perhaps archivists ought to do some finding of their own, building exhibitions, web sites, and some publications around their holdings, once tossed aside, but now possessing great significance for our understanding of the past.