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.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Reading Diaries and Blogs

As more and more people transfer their diary writing impulse to the creating and maintaining of their online blogs, one wonders how these digital diaries will be read in the long-term future. The act of creating a blog is intended to generate immediate responses, as I hope for in this very blog I am posting this in, as opposed to the older tradition of diary writing where a diary was intended to be read long after the writer was gone. In a few days, I will be in an archives reading a diary that was closed for twenty-five years after the death of its creator, an access provision dictated as part of the gift of that individual’s papers comprising the diaries. The mere fact of having closed the diaries for so long makes me anticipate that there must be detailed intimate notations on this person’s life and career that will provide additional insights beyond what I learned about in his other papers (mostly correspondence, notes for and drafts of professional essays and other publications, and financial records). Will this blog be around in twenty-five years to be read?

Novelist and essayist Julian Barnes in a recent essay – “The Past Conditional: What Mother Would Have Wanted,” New Yorker (December 25, 2006 & January 1, 2007) – describes this family ritual: “My brother remembers a ritual – never witnessed by me – that he calls the Reading of the Diaries. According to him, Grandma and Grandpa each kept diaries, and in the evenings would sometimes read out loud to each other what they had recorded five years earlier. The entries were apparently of stunning banality but frequent disagreement” (p. 57). I can imagine such diary reading occurring in more than one household, but I wonder if the online quality of blogs will lend themselves to this kind of family event. Or, even that blogs will be around in five, let alone twenty-five, years? While there is a communal aspect of blogging, in that they are publicly posted for reading, there is still a solitary nature about them, as one person reads and perhaps comments on the blog’s newest posting.

In the recent issue of an American archival journal, archivist Nancy Deromedi discusses a variety of issues relating to the personal web sites of university faculty. In her “Personal Faculty Web Sites: Exploring Archival Issues and the Digital Convergence,” Archival Issues 29, no. 1 (2005):9-18, Deromedi considers efforts by the University of Michigan to investigate how these web sites are used and the archival issues they present. Scanning what faculties there do with web sites, Deromedi concludes that they serve as sites to provide information on “academic identity and achievements” and “to convey knowledge through the distribution of teaching and research materials” (p. 11). Recognizing faculty blogs especially as mechanisms enhancing the role of faculty as public intellectuals or scholars, the University of Michigan library, along with the Bentley Library, its archival arm, started a blogging service “designed to include the option for archiving the blog” and giving the option to a faculty member to have a blog appraised by archivists when the blog is inactive (p. 12). This also opens the possibility of documenting more effectively what and how faculties teach in their courses and how this connects to faculty research, an aspect of university archival work that has proved to be particularly challenging to accomplish.

I am not sure how many university and college archives and records management programs focus on faculty blogs and Web sites (Deromedi suggests that faculty papers of any sort continue to be a low priority for these archival programs), but I know that little attention has been paid to these digital recordkeeping systems at my own school. This raises interesting questions regarding the future of my own blog, for example, and it obviously falls to my own resources to maintain it over time in any form. I must admit that my goals for this blog do not include its long-term preservation. I see its main value as serving as an extension of my teaching and as a means to generate additional substantive discussion about scholarly and other discourse on the nature of archives and the archival enterprise; at this early stage it may be premature to assess its value in the larger sense, although the level of conversation seems minimal (similar to other efforts I have been engaged in over the years – maybe the problem is me). As for its long-term value, I suspect that I will ultimately fold my blog postings into published essays and books, maybe a book (or books) on “reading” archives, and I see this as the final archiving of the blog. Perhaps this merely places me among an older traditional generation, but until something else comes along I don’t think I see the blog as anything more than a testing or drafting of ideas about societal and scholarly images of archives.

There is, of course, a personal dimension of my blog. As I write various postings, I often share something of my own life and professional experiences, as well as sharing ideas about research and writing projects. William Zinsser, in his introduction to a collection of essays on memoir writing -- Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998) – suggests that “This is the age of the memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell. And everyone is telling it” (p. 3). In a sense, this blog joins me into this culture. We are so sensitized to this notion of sharing our private thoughts that there have even been new developments in blogging software, allowing us to share our most personal thoughts with the means to control more effectively who have access to the blog. That blogging is already so ingrained in our culture can be seen in that the Economist (November 25, 2005) featured a page long story – “The Universal Diarist” p. 68 -- on Mena Trott and Vox, the new blogging software allowing individuals to determine what aspect of their blog will be private and what part will be public. Blogging, despite how some remain skeptical of it, is probably here to stay, and it may be one of the best means, as well as a serious challenge, for archivists to document a wide range of individual and family activities. I wonder if anyone in the archival community might ultimately want to archive my own blog as being important to professional discourse and development?