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, January 03, 2007

Memories of Records

In memoirs of every type, one can find references to the archival impulse, as the following four examples suggest. Whether one is commenting on some aspect of their past, writing a coming of age tale, or describing some aspect of their family, there is a good chance that some aspect of creating and maintaining records will appear. This attests to the universal appeal of archives, reflecting that the effort to make and save documents is a universal human impulse – even if archivists often feel that they and their work are misunderstood.

Bill Bryson, in his hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s, -- The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), suggests that he would not have gone to school “if it hadn’t been for mimeograph paper.” While it is his only reference to anything having to do with the making of documents, it is one that everyone of my generation will recall with some fondness. Bryson laments, “Of all the tragic losses since the 1960s, mimeograph paper may be the greatest. With its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, mimeograph paper was literally intoxicating. Two deep drafts of a freshly run-off mimeograph worksheet and I would be the education system’s willing slave for up to seven hours.” Bryson goes on to describe how he “draped” the sheets over his face and “drifted off to a private place where fields were green, everyone went barefoot, and the soft trill of panpipes floated on the air” (p. 143). What I love about Bryson’s recollection is that every time I have made reference to mimeograph paper and the mimeograph machine, anyone below the age of forty looks at me with blank stares. It is another example of an older record making technology, once so prevalent that has nearly disappeared from both sight and memory.

Dan Koeppel, in the memoir about his father being a birdwatcher – To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, A Son, and a Lifelong Obsession (New York: Plume, 2005) – considers people, such as his father, seeking to record a sighting of every bird species: “My father is a brilliant man who has lived a life that, in so many respects, didn’t turn out the way he wanted. He buried the sadness of his disappointments by watching birds, by tending his logbooks and checklists the way a gardener nurtures his blooms . . . . The triumph of the list is the triumph of that hidden heart because it is proof not just of obsession, but also grace, and glory” (p. xv). What Koeppel is describing here is the compulsive recordkeeping that many energetic collectors indulge in, creating the kind of archival trace that most archivists love to see, assuming they are able to sort out the peculiar aspects of their notation and documentation.

Koeppel also captures the obsessive recordkeeping that can accompany the efforts of birdwatchers. In describing the work of Phoebe Snetsinger, Koeppel writes, “Snetsinger’s preparation for a trip was as tightly woven as a military campaign. She prepared a special notebook for each excursion, complete with a handwritten paragraph on each target bird’s key identifying features. She was a stickler for scientific accuracy, making sure that she knew both the English and Latin names for each species, as well as whatever it might be called in local languages. During the trip, Snetsinger recorded details of the birds she’d seen in the notebook, then transferred that information onto individual species cards when she returned home. She insisted on copying each sighting, word-for-word, sometimes twice, as a way or reinforcing and remembering what she’d seen” (pp. 225-226).

Jennie Erdal’s memoir of her life as a ghostwriter, Ghosting: A Double Life (New York: Anchor Books, 2004) includes this interesting reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s personal archives in the basement of her home just south of Munich: “Every part of her life had been recorded and labeled and catalogued, and it was all stored in box upon box, shelf upon shelf. The boxes were even color coded: yellow for press cuttings, green for de-nazification documents, red for American correspondence, grey for German, white for personal letters and black for court cases – more than fifty of them” (p. 107). Whether this captures the archival impulse of an individual focused on rebuilding or reinventing her reputation or is simply another reflection of the compulsive documenting of someone associated with the Third Reich, it is an interesting portrait of a personal archives.

It probably should come as no surprise that individuals reflecting on their love affairs with various sports enterprises sooner or later also are discussing recordkeeping ventures. Robert Benson, in his The Game: One Man, Nine Innings, A Love Affair with Baseball (New Yorker: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004), provides a couple of interesting passages about his maintenance of personal documentation about the sport. Describing how he started to keep score at baseball games, Benson writes, “I was in a place in my life in those days when it was very important to get everything down on paper and not miss anything, good or bad, that was happening to me. I was going through a rebirth of sorts, in virtually every area of my life, and things were coming at me so hard and so fast that I was afraid something would get away if I did not take notes” (p. 46). Benson was struggling with depression, a recent divorce, a new job, a new girlfriend, and a renewed commitment to writing. Reading passages such as this one suggests how complex the motivations for personal recordkeeping may be and how interesting an area for future research it might be.

Benson also reflects on his keeping old scorecards and related documents. “My old scorecards and scorebooks are on a shelf beside my old journals. Next to them is a box of old calendar pages going back some years now. I designed a way of keeping track of my days on those pages beyond making and keeping appointments. It is complete with little boxes and marks and abbreviations for weather and naps and stuff. For some reason it is important for me to be able to recall whom I wrote a letter to and whom I called and where I went and what I was reading on a given day” (pp. 53-54). At another point, Benson confesses that he does not know why he is interested in “keeping track of such things. If someone were to ask me to defend it, I would not have much to say, except that I must not want to miss anything. Or maybe that I want to be sure that I know what I did today or yesterday, so that I can point to it sometime and say this is what I did today. Here it is, the real stuff that I spent my day doing” (p. 54). Again, such comments provide some insights into the motivations people develop for maintaining personal archives.

Others involved in sports have written memoirs with some interesting commentary about documentation. Roger Angell, in his Let Me Finish (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006), provides this useful insight into watching his father write letters: “Every night when I was a boy, I sat and read in our living room, listening to my father writing letters. He wrote on his lap in longhand, with the letter paper backed by one of his long yellow legal pads and the scratch and swirl of his black Waterman pen across the page sounded like the scrabblings of a creature in the underbrush. There were no pauses or crossings out, and in time I realized that I could even identify the swash of a below-the-line ‘g’ leaping diagonally upward into an ‘h’ and the crossing doublezag of an ensuing ‘t’ and soon after the blip of a period. When he reached the bottom of the page, the sheet was turned over and smoothed down in a single, back-of-the-hand gesture, and the rush of writing and pages went on, while I waited for the declarative final ‘E’ or ‘Ernest’ – the loudest sound of all – that told me the letter was done” (p. 29). It is doubtful that we can hear such sounds in letter-writing anymore, although the collecting and use of fountain pens is a growth industry (I own several fountain pens and use them). I suppose we can replace such sounds with the sounds of our computers (although my Apple iBook G4 is so quiet, although perhaps no more quiet than what the writing of Angell’s father). There is, obviously, a very different sensory experience with subsequent generations of record making, and given the development of a new scholarship in the history of sound, I am sure this is a topic being explored by someone.