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, January 01, 2007

In Search of Archives

Writer and academic Ted Bishop, recovering from a motorcycle accident, has written an account of his motorcycle trip in America and the United States combining his literary research and various writing projects. Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2006), ISBN-13:978-0-393-06261-8, includes a number of references to the nature of research in archives and the archival impulse that will be of interest to those who administer literary manuscripts collections.

Bishop waxes poetic when he describes holding Virginia Woolf’s original suicide note at Washington State University, an experience that made him realize that he was an “archive junkie” (p. 36). Examining the note did not add to his “textual knowledge” but it did add to his “corporeal knowledge”: “Part of the reason we work in archives is, I’m convinced, for the archival jolt, a portal to knowledge and, in itself, an assurance that we have connected with something real” (p. 36). Personally, I like the concept of the archival jolt, and it is something worth examining among other scholars who use archival resources.

Bishop also serves up some interesting insights into the archival research process. He suggests that it is “serendipity” that “governs all archival events”: “We speak of solid research methods and good detective work, but the real discoveries seem to come from nowhere, to be handed to you, after days or weeks in which (it appears in retrospect) the insight has been perversely denied, as if there were not just the curators but some other power controlling the archives” (p. 111). Bishop makes a tongue-in-cheek mention of the ancient Egyptian goddess (Seskat) of writing, libraries, mathematics, architecture, and archives as playing some role in the process. At another point, he describes the architectural design of reading rooms at the Ransom Center where they are surrounded in glass, suggesting that the “designers had captured the heart of archival work: the discovery of surprising connections between disparate artifacts” (p. 167). Reading Bishop’s comments does suggest to me that another window into understanding archival users is in reading the writings of the researchers themselves (something we seem not to have done as we should).

We can gain, for example, an impression of what our researchers think about archives and archivists by reading accounts such as this one. Bishop provides an impression of what our researchers sense of their experiences when they are in archival repositories, with comments such as his likening the archival research process to that of the act of solitary reading: “In the archives there might be other readers, each at a solitary table, yet if you interact at all it is only at lunch breaks. You may spend two weeks or more together, in silence” (p. 125). Bishop also describes the work of archivists John Kirkpatrick at the Ransom Center, in a way that might encourage other archivists and curators: “Without that animating figure the collection is just a heap of books and manuscripts; with him or her it becomes a web of live connections. Watching John K move from table to table, offering a suggestion, pointing out a reference. I realized that the great curators have the whole collections in their heads, and they play it like a conductor with a musical score” (p. 127). While Bishop here is not complaining but only observing what archival research is like, this does suggest to me that we might want to consider ways of bringing together our researchers so that they can interact with each other in more comfortable and useful ways (or at least give our researchers the opportunity for such interaction if they choose to take advantage of it).

At various spots Bishop makes intriguing comments about aspects of the archival community. For example, when discussing the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas Austin, Bishop reflects, “British archivists hated the Ransom Center. Against Ransom’s oil-cash reserves in the 1960s, resistance had been futile and Ransom had assimilated all the best literary manuscripts. Bad enough that the British literary heritage flowed to the United States, but this institution wasn’t even Harvard or Yale. Texas was off anybody’s cultural map. That was forty years ago. Now for modernism, Austin was at the center” (p. 101). This is an interesting reflection of the international market for literary and historical manuscripts, a topic not normally discussed by most archivists, but a topic deserving a lot more attention (not unlike what has recently occurred with the discussions of the illegal antiquities trade).

What other memoirs do we know that have been written by archives junkies like Bishop?