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, March 30, 2008

A Library Lamp

Alberto Manguel, a public scholar, has written a series of provocative works on reading, visual images, and books. His most recent volume, The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) may be his best. Early in the book, Manguel indicates that he opted not to write another history of libraries, “but merely to give an account of [his] astonishment” about what libraries represent (p. 4). The result is a magical, highly personal, tour about the library as myth, order, space, power, shadow, shape, change, workshop, mind, island, survival, oblivion, imagination, identity, and home. This covers essentially every manner in which individuals have reflected on books and libraries, from the ancient world to the present. Manguel freely ranges over libraries drawing on his eclectic reading, personal experience, others’ experiences, and diverse scholarship. In some ways this is a book meant to be read leisurely and reflectively, akin to reading someone’s commonplace book of collected observations on the nature of libraries, printed books, and the World Wide Web as the potential new universal library.

Why write about a book about libraries in a blog about archives? Beyond my own personal interests and love of books, I can think of three reasons. First, many of the characteristics Manguel assigns to the library apply to the archive. For example, consider this: “Entering a library, I am always struck by the way in which a certain vision of the world is imposed upon the reader, through its categories and its order” (p. 47). Although some archivists have been loath to admit that in their work they shape the documentary heritage, the evidence is overwhelming that this is exactly what they do.

Second, Manguel, in his diverse sense of what the library represents, often includes allusions to texts or documents likewise found in archives. Manguel’s notion of how libraries are formed covers effectively the same fashion in which many archives are formed: “Books come together because of the whims of a collector, the avatars of a community, the passing of war and time, because of neglect, care, the imponderability of survival, the random culling of the rag-and-bone trade, and it may take centuries before their congregation acquires the identifiable shape of a library” (p. 165). Many archives are the result of the efforts by prominent collectors; even government archives, at least in their early histories, seem to be collected. Later, considering how libraries have been affected by war, government control, and censorship, Manguel adds, “Trust in the survival of the word, like the urge to forget what words attempt to record, is as old as the first clay tablets stolen from the Baghdad Museum. To hold and transmit memory, to learn through the experience of others, to share knowledge of the world and of ourselves, are some of the powers (and dangers) that books confer upon us, and the reasons why we both treasure and fear them” (p. 266). Over the past century we watched archives being destroyed because they represent symbolic identity and community memory. Destroy the archives, and you destroy the people’s identity.

And, third, Manguel’s beautiful and lyrical writing suggests the need for someone to bring such literary skills to the nature and role of archives. Examining his own library, Manguel reflects, “My books hold between their covers every story I’ve ever known and still remember, or have now forgotten, or may one day read; they fill the space around me with ancient and new voices” (p. 14). Considering the demise of the ancient Library of Alexandria, he suggests, poetically, that the “Library that wanted to be the storehouse for the memory of the world was not able to secure for us the memory of itself” (p. 27). With Manguel we have an effective representative of libraries to the public. Archives generally have not had such literate spokespeople.

Anyone familiar with the scholarship on libraries will find something to quibble about in this set of reflections about books, reading, and the nature of libraries (for me, I disagree with the manner in which he assesses Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold diatribe about the issues of library preservation). However, I am here to praise Alberto Manguel for writing a beautiful extended essay on the value of libraries and what they contain.