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 13, 2006

What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like, the Sequel

One day, while browsing through the various postings on the Archives & Archivists Listserv, I happened across a message indicating that the mystery Plum Island by Nelson DeMille, is a good read with an archivist as one of the main characters. So, I take a break one afternoon and head to a local bookstore to see what this character is about. As I approach the 1997 mystery, I am not worrying about the story or the quality of writing; I am interested in how the archivist is handled.

The female archivist is introduced, a president of the local historical society, who also is a florist. The hard-boiled male detective checks her out – tall, attractive, wearing skimpy clothes, younger than expected, and listersn to her explanation of the purpose of the society as being “dedicated to preserving, recording, and passing on our heritage” (p. 281). The archivist also indicates that they have “some interesting archives” as well (p. 281). In her banter with the detective, the archivist suggests that she likes “archive work” and has a degree in “archival science” from Columbia University (p. 284). The detective is depicted as thinking, “she had a nice, soft, breathy voice which I found sexy” (p. 284). The archivist “had a lot of gossip, a lot of insights into people, though not much of it seemed to relate to the case” (p. 291).

The archivist takes the detective on a tour of the historical society, and, along the way, the archives housed there. The detective asks her how she got into this work, and she indicates that her family was among the original settlers in the area. Here’s the good part. The archivist explains, “Archive work must be a little like detective work. You know – mysteries, questions to be answered, things that need to be uncovered” (p. 292).

The dialogue continues, with the archivist commenting on the difficulty faced in reading the seventeenth and eighteenth century handwriting, producing a “big looseleaf binder that was on the table. Inside were plastic sleeves and in the plastic were old parchments” (p. 293). The archivist “read the letter,” the detective reflects, “which to me had been indecipherable.” The detective thought her reading of the old document was “impressive,” but she explains that it can be learned of months (p. 293). They have lunch, and shortly thereafter, sex. Incidentally, the archivist had breasts that “looked like twin volcanic islands in the moonlight” (p. 308).

This was as far as I could go with this. This was not a book with character development, and it seemed that the author was, perhaps, striving to create a character going against the stereotypes of archivists. The details about archival work only operated on a very shallow level, with no depth at all. And, seemingly, nothing to be learned about presenting a character effectively as an archivist. The archivist was just a bit quirky, intelligent, a free-spirited woman, one who could be anything, laboring in any occupation. So this was not the great American novel, but it was, according to its cover, a New York Times bestseller, one full of “mind-twisting suspense.” Should we be happy that in the midst of the suspense we found an archivist?

Looking at fictional examples provides lots of elements that are part of the general range of stereotypes of real-life archivists, sometimes to the point of seeing eerie similarity between fact and fiction, the real and the imagined. One comparison is nearly classic. Martha Cooley, in her novel The Archivist, excellent from a literary perspective (in my humble opinion), tells a tale of an archivist wrestling with whether to open or destroy personal letters of T.S. Eliot, revealing intimate details of a long-term affair. Some real-life archivists howled over the fictional representation of themselves, especially some of the characterization of the academic archivist as possessing great power because of his administrative control of the historical documents. Nearly everyone protested the idea that any archivist would ever become so enamored with a particular individual’s papers and posterity that they would consider actually destroying the materials. Of course, in reality, many archives and archival repositories had entered into somewhat questionable sets of restrictions, but most such concern about Cooley’s novel missed the literary intent to deal with how to cope with the burden of the past – in other words a good venue for the literary treatment of an archivist.

A non-fictional account of the administration of a literary estate appeared about the same time as the Cooley novel. Janna Malamud Smith, the daughter of Bernard Malamud, in her book Private Matters, wrote emotionally about the challenges of administering her father’s papers that often reveal a lot about her own childhood and subsequent life. In one of the chapters she writes in a way that could have been lifted right out of the Cooley novel, concluding, in frustration, that if it was up to her she would destroy her father’s papers and be done with it. Perhaps it is because the power of stereotypical images of archives and archivists tend to predominate in both fiction and non-fiction descriptions. For the fictional approaches, no one has done better Arlene Schmuland in her “The Archival Image in Fiction: An Analysis and Annotated Bibliography,” American Archivist 62 (Spring 1999): 24-73. For the non-fictional assessments, pick up nearly any history or other scholarly work relying on archives and look for the description of dusty archives and musty archivists.