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.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Inevitable Burning

For years I would debate with my wife about the work of the archivist. She would laugh, and state with a twinkle in her eye, “So, just what is the eternal significance of preserving all that old stuff?” It is, of course, a good question, if only intended to provoke me to re-evaluate just what I was doing with my life.

Debates, from time to time, within the archives community about whether archival documents possess permanent or continuing value also reflect the same kind of question. While generating some interesting scholarly and professional literature, we remain far from gaining a completely satisfactory answer.

Then, in a bit of reading about the vocation of the writer by the mystic Thomas Merton, I came across this entry from his own diary, dated October 10, 1948, and published in Robert Inchausti, ed., Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing (Boston: New Seeds, 2007), p. 13:

“Sooner or later the world must burn, and all things in it – all the books, the cloister together with the brothel, Fra Angelico together with the Lucky Strike ads which I haven’t seen for seven years because I don’t remember seeing one in Louisville. Sooner or later it will all be consumed by fire and nobody will be left – for by that time the last man in the universe will have discovered the bomb capable of destroying the universe and will have been unable to resist the temptation to throw the thing and get it over with.

And here I sit writing a diary.

But love laughs at the end of the world because love is the door to eternity and he who loves God is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door and he won’t bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but love.”

Whatever one’s religious views might be, a way of reading this is to remember that there are always bigger issues than the immediate or long-term preservation of various documents. And in addition, archivists need to be in a position to at least grapple with such philosophical questions about their mission. After all, archivists are often given meager resources because of other organizational and social issues that seem to have higher priorities – and maybe they do. But one thing Merton is saying is that we also should focus on our primary responsibilities and activities with the knowledge that everything ultimately will be sorted out. However, this will only occur if archivists can look up from their own work, see beyond their daily chores, and ask and try to answer the big questions. Is this happening? I am not really sure.

And here I sit writing a blog.