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.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Writing, Silence, and the Archival Dilemma

Sara Paretsky’s Writing in an Age of Silence (New York: Verso, 2007) provides an interesting memoir of how she became a writer and her concerns with the role and prospects for writers in what she sees as an increasingly oppressive America, Paretsky is the author of the popular V I Warshawski novels, and well known to avid readers of mysteries. Some of the memories of her childhood are painful ones, and her analysis of the role of the writer is not particularly hopeful, except that she reaffirms the need for writers to speak out plainly and bluntly through their writing. Here is how she describes the life of the writer; “Every writer’s difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech. We must be intensely private and interior in order to find a voice and a vision – and we must bring our work to an outside world where the market, or public outrage, or even government censorship can destroy our voice” (p. 111). Later, Paretsky is more direct in what writers must do: “The only way to keep ourselves free is to speak, not to let ourselves be silenced, either by pernicious laws, or by mob screaming” (p. 134). Her assessment can be applied to other kinds of writers as well, academic scholars and professionals such as academics, both groups who face the same pressures to conform or to be silent.

There are a number of ways in which the archival impulse manifests itself in her memoir about how she learned to write. Paretsky’s stressful relationship with her parents comes through in a number of spots in the book, including the recounting of the incident of their purposeful destruction of her youthful manuscripts: “When I was a teenager, both parents wanted me to use my words to make their points – my mother demanding poems describing her entrapment, my father stories proclaiming his unlauded glories. I dutifully created both. But beyond that my writing roused so little interest that my mother told me my father burned all my childhood papers in some housekeeping frenzy or other. I kept hoping she got it wrong. Before they died, I spent hours hunting through their attic for some story, some diary, a remnant to connect me with my past, something that might tell me what dreams I used to have. Nothing comes to light” (p. 18). Many of us, in far healthier environments, can recall similar events. My grandmother, battling her own demons, destroyed many of my family photographs in an effort to eradicate painful memories and to inflict hurt on others who might have wanted some connection with the family past. I think maybe I became an archivist out of some deep personal resentment about such deliberate affronts to the past and documentary record. It is clear that from such events in her own life that Paretsky becomes a writer and that her background shapes the kind of writing that she does.

At another point Paretsky compares the mass protests of the 1960s and 1970s with the relative apathy of today, attributing the change partly to the kind of digital haze and information glut we are enveloped in. “In the sixties and early seventies,” she writes, “when we encountered this kind of hatred [such as racism], we would take to the streets and organize for change. Today, I see few signs that anyone wants to organize for change. I don’t know if people feel so overwhelmed by the war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism, the damage to the environment, the destruction of women’s rights, the loss of jobs, the long decline in real wages, along with the gutting of federal anti-poverty programs, that we don’t know where or how to start. I don’t know if people are in narcissistic cocoons of cell phones and iPods that make us oblivious to the world outside” (pp. 49-50). This is especially important for Paretsky, evident by the way she historically assesses the challenges for writers to be vocal in an age seeking to silence them: “Silence can come from the market, as it did for Melville. It can come from public hysteria, as it did for Kate Chopin. It can come from the government as outright censorship. Today in America we are finding pressure to silence coming from all three sources” (p. 113). If a writer such as Paretsky sees such challenges for a writer, how should archivists see barriers today in their own mission and work? Clearly, the same challenges are pernicious threats to archivists as well. After all, what is the point of trying to preserve any sense of a documentary heritage if it is sanitized before the public can see it and blocked by elaborate ruses of national security threats and intellectual property restrictions that only lawyers can seemingly unravel?

There is, however, always reason to hope. Paretsky, at the conclusion of her book, notes, “When I enter a library, when I enter the world of books, I feel the ghosts of the past on my shoulders, urging me to courage” (p. 138). Many archivists, certainly I do, may feel the same when they enter an archives and see researchers using the materials reposing there. When we read in the manuscripts and other documents left behind by individuals their own courage in speaking out in their families, workplaces, and society, I hope archivists are likewise encouraged to become more effective advocates for a free and open society. An age of silence is not one that will strengthen the archival mission or endorse the work of archivists. It is an era that will lull archivists into believing that they can perform their tasks without worrying about the issues that allow or block access to the records they maintain.