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, June 11, 2007

Hunting Archives

It is not often that a major magazine runs a lengthy article about an archival topic. D. T. Max, “Final Destination: Why Do the Archives of So Many Great Writers End Up in Texas?,” New Yorker, June 11 and 18, 2007, pp. 54, 59-60, 63-64, 66-68, 70-71, is an obvious exception. Should archivists be doing cartwheels about this peek into the work of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the activities of its director, Tom Staley? I think this is a question up for debate and discussion.

Max provides an in-depth description of the Staley’s energetic quest for literary manuscripts and archival collections, noting how the Center is outwitting Yale, Harvard, and the British Library in its acquisition efforts. As Max suggests, the Ransom Center “operates more like a college sports team, with Staley as the coach – an approach that fits the temperament of Texas” (p. 54). And the sense one gains from this essay is the fun and profit from building great pots of money in order to wheel and deal for the literary manuscript treasures. Max says that to Staley the “world is a map of treasures whose locations he already knows” (p. 59). There are references to putting individuals on the Center’s advisory board because the individual might have sway to acquire a particular writer’s papers. Large sums of money, $5 million for the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate papers and $2.5 million for the Norman Mailer archives, are tossed about in the essay. Competition seems to be the key factor in all, as well as the thrill of the quest for a new treasure.

Max makes clear that the ambitious collecting regime is the legacy of the center’s founding in 1956, its namesake, a former dean at the university. The author also makes clear that Ransom, by his aggressive purchases, also drove up the prices in the market, citing some interesting letters from authors who were aware that they could fetch handsome fees for turning over their literary manuscripts. Surprisingly, Max does not discuss what the present impact of Staley’s activities might be on the monetary value of literary collections, but it must be substantial. Such financial wheeling and dealing is not what all archives do, of course, and the archival profession ought to be concerned about the implications of such behavior on the value of such collections and the need for increased security. Such issues are not discussed here, with the author’s stress on the charismatic Staley and his collecting binges and competitive nature.

The entire essay focuses on acquisition. Present director Staley is described as a “natural collector” (p. 63). Max contrasts Staley with his predecessor, Decherd Turner, who make a “mistake” because he was only “focused on the preservation of manuscripts,” rather than hunting down and acquiring collections (p. 63). Many archivists might argue that such a focus was not a mistake, but a necessary step needing to be taken after extensive collecting activities. Throughout the essay Staley’s adventures in acquiring rare and significant documents, such as Joyce’s first edit of the first chapter of Finnegan’s Wake of the accumulated archives of Isaac Bashevis Singer, especially in difficult circumstances where manuscripts might be thrown out or protected excessively by heirs, are played up. The monitoring of young or emerging writers is also described, a standard practice for many literary manuscript collectors but a practice that here seems like just more obsessive acquisition.

There are disturbing aspects evident in Max’s essay. Explicit is Staley’s dislike of digital reproductions and his emphasis on the physical artifact. At one point Staley tells Max to smell the manuscript, suggesting that there is “information in the smell, too” (p. 64). This leads Max to describe the Ransom Center as a “collection of ruins,” of yellowing manuscripts, handwritten notes, old report cards, and a variety of documentary materials that some might question (and they should). Surprisingly, there is no mention of writers who are now employing digital means to create literary texts; are these being ignored by Staley? If so, this seems like a major void in documenting writers and their work.

All in all, of course, seeing an article like this in a major periodical like the New Yorker provides a lot of good information to the public about what archives and archivists are about. Max writes, for example, that “archives are like books without indexes; you know in a general way if you’re interested in the subject, but there is no shortcut to finding out if what you’re really looking for is in there” (p. 66) – and then goes on to provide a good description of archival finding aids. He provides good descriptions about the nature and value of literary manuscripts (especially focusing on Don DeLillo), especially the kinds of materials writers create and accumulate over the course of their careers. But is all this somewhat weakened because there is no discussion of other archival issues, such as why cooperative approaches might not be better or if there ought to be some consideration of the ethical aspects of such collecting as well.

Unfortunately, this is another example of a popular view of archives with rampant collecting of documentary artifacts. This is only a part of what those concerned for documentary modern writers ought to be doing, even if they live and work in Texas and have a lot of money to throw around.