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.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Art of Collecting

I have gotten in trouble before about relating the psychology of collecting to what archivists and manuscripts curators do. Collecting is not a completely rational process, playing on a range of human emotions, while archivists have tried to make appraisal and acquisition much more of a planned and strategic process. Still, we know that archival collections and repositories often stimulate passionate feelings and they certainly possess holdings with symbolic and other qualities. And we know that many individuals find their way into this profession because of a deep love for history and the material remains the past has left behind.

Art professor Marilynn Gelfman Karp has ably captured some of the aspects of collecting in her In Flagrante Collecto (Caught in the Act of Collecting) (New York: Abrams, 2006), ISBN 0-8109-5540-7. A beautifully illustrated, oversize volume, Karp defines collecting as “an act of very personalized commitment. It’s about erecting a bond between yourself and object; it’s all about what you choose to be responsible for. Whoever collects understands this. Humanity can be divided into two parts: those who collect and the others” (p. 11). Her focus in this lavishly illustrated work is the most common and seemingly uncollectible objects. Archivists are among those, along with museum and art curators and other similar professionals, who have chosen to make their livelihood what others have deemed to be a hobby. No matter how we intellectualize what archivists do, there will always be an aspect of their work that involves an activity that contains a recreational or deeply psychological aspect – the hunting and gathering of that portion of the documentary universe that seems to possess some sort of long-term value.

Karp moves the reader through various kinds of collecting, noting at one point that “one of my collections is of literary insights about collecting; employing them in this book has implicit appeal” (p. 18). She illustrates each variety of collecting. She writes about how objects speak, particularly focusing on the reasons we need to collect. Some of the traits Karp identifies are similar to some of the functions archivists carry out, such as when she asserts that there is “deep satisfaction in organizing, inventorying, embracing, handling, and communing” with what we have acquired (p. 24). She reflects on what broken artifacts mean to us and why some objects do not survive intact; the meaning of obsolescence in objects created to be used up, but that somehow manage to survive anyway; offbeat collecting of tasteless or socially objectionable artifacts; and the nature of acquiring religious relics, just a few examples among many themes and topics treated in Karp’s book. While there are some topics that will be of particular interest to archivists, such as items lost or thrown away (such as grocery shopping lists), it will be the numerous illustrations of ephemera, old documents, and other records forms that archivists might want to examine.

There are far more themes that could be described here, but this is a book better picked up, read, and gawked at than experimented through a brief summary and review. Karp states, near the end of the book, “If you’ve read this far, chances are that you are either a collector or trying to understand one. Collecting is analogous to gastronomy; it’s about savoring, ingesting, assimilating. What is collected is accretion; it becomes part of you, enhances your being” (p. 328). I understand this, because I collect books about collecting and the archival impulse, and In Flagrante Collecto is now part of this collection.