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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Book It

Me reading my first archives manual.

Every day, someone writes a prediction about the demise of the printed book. Books, since their inception, have generated lots of attention. And, even today in their supposed twilight years, many different views about books and their role in society appear to challenge us to rethink what they mean to us. Roger Mummert, "Handle This Book! Curators Put Rare Texts in 18-Year-Old Hands," New York Times, November 2, 2008, in the special education supplement, writes about the emergence of new courses about the history of books and printing for undergraduates. Mummert notes, "Courses on the history of the book itself have grown along with the ascendancy of electronic information. Students today often blindly grant authority to the online world. Curators want to reconnect them with original sources and teach them to question those sources" (p. 30). So, maybe there is hope for the printed book.

Most of what I discuss on this blog, about archives, are recently published books. I love books. I read them, buy them, write in them, and collect them. I surround my self with them. It seems appropriate to reflect on some varying views about the book and its value in our society. The first book described reminds us that books have long been critical for intellectual activity and for documenting it. The second book briefly reviewed provides a remarkably informative account of scholarly publishing by presenting the history of one university press. Then there are two books dealing with influence of books as seen in efforts to censor and destroy them.

Kevin J. Hayes, The Mind of a Patriot: Patrick Henry and the World of Ideas (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008) is an effort to put to rest the long-standing notion (perpetuated by Jefferson’s characterization of him) that Henry was a great orator but not a particularly well-read individual. Hayes argues that Henry had a good library of a couple of volumes, that he borrowed books as needed from friends, and that he took advantage of sojourns to places like Philadelphia to make use of lending libraries. Henry read deeply, especially to improve his oratorical skills.

Hayes’s depiction of Henry also provides insights into the role of books in American society in the eighteenth century. He suggests that “books often functioned as social capital. The acts of loaning and borrowing books greatly strengthened bonds between friends – assuming, of course, that they returned the books they borrowed” (p. 7). Some might argue that access to the World Wide Web has subsumed this function, but I doubt that those who continue to buy printed books and build personal libraries would agree with such an assessment. Hayes also depicts Henry as a reflective reader, someone who made “his books a part of his mind. Once he fully internalized what the books had to tell him, their importance as material objects waned. Henry made no specific provisions for his library in his will: the collection was gradually broken up and dispersed. Only a few books now survive with evidence of his ownership” (p. 106). Today, some argue that we don’t do such reading, but rather we search, scroll, and surf looking for bits of information. However, I suspect that there are many who are building personal libraries, because they like books as material objects or because they find them immensely convenient objects to be consulted in their print form with their indexes and even with whatever idiosyncratic arrangement scheme we have employed.

Nicholas A. Basbanes, a frequent commentator on the history of books and book collecting, has recently published A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Basbane reviews the various arguments regarding the decline of university presses, but offers in the case of Yale the story (and Basbanes is good at telling stories) of one that has been successful for a long time. Basbanes had access to the publisher’s archives, interviewed many of the publisher’s staff and prominent authors, and sat in on many of the board meetings. He provides commentary on important books, award winners, surprising successes, and the various strategies that the Yale press has used to be financially solvent and to have an enduring influence on scholarship. Since Yale has been the publisher of a number of important documentary editions (Benjamin Franklin, Horace Walpole, and Russian archives are examples), there are many references to archival materials and their publication.

Books often generate outrage, provoking censorship movements, revealing much about the attitudes of a particular time. Rick Wartzman, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Public Affairs, 2008) provides a rich accounting of the efforts in Kern County, California to ban Steinbeck’s novel. Wartzman sets the efforts to ban the book in their historical, social, political, and economic contexts. We learn about how Steinbeck gathered his data for the writing of the novel, the various forces of the farm owners and political and labor organizations, the numerous books written to counter Steinbeck’s depiction of the refugees from the Dust Bowl, the controversies besetting the making of the John Ford film version, and how the howling about the Steinbeck book compares to other controversial books (such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin). There has been a lot written about censorship and book banning, but none quite as up close and personal as Wartzman’s study. His is not a book defending or critiquing such efforts; Obscene in the Extreme studies the personalities involved and the era and seeks to understand why there was such an outcry about this particular novel, now considered a masterpiece.

Fernando Báez, director of Venezuela’s National Library, gives us a sweeping history of book destruction in his A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, translated by Alfred MacAdam (New York: Atlas and Co., 2008). Starting with a first-hand perspective on the destruction of manuscripts, books, and museum collections in Iraq in 2003 (asking “why should this murder of memory have occurred in the place where the book was born?” [p. 3]), Báez demonstrates that this is only a recent event in the long line of horrific events inflicted on society’s cultural record over thousands of years. Báez believes that although books have been destroyed for over 5000 years, “we barely have any idea why” (p. 6), and he tries to set the record straight. Báez admits that it is “impossible to document precisely” all the destructions of “libraries, book collections, and publishing houses,” (p. 173) providing at spots summaries of trends rather than details about specific events.

There are numerous references to the destruction of archival materials as well, since books and historical manuscripts were often housed together and just as often not distinguished between by their destroyers. Báez’s partly attributes humankind’s destruction of these cultural materials to “behavior originating in the depths of personality, in a search for the restitution of an archetype of equilibrium, power, or transcendence. . . . The destructive ritual, like the constructive ritual applied to the building of temples, houses, or any work, fixes patterns that return the individual to the community, to shelter, or to the vertigo of purity” (p. 9). He enumerates reasons why books are important to society and individuals, and concludes that “books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory, that is, as one of the axes of identity of a person or a community” (p. 12), while acknowledging that there is no one reason why books are destroyed (suggesting why he provides description after description of the instances in history of book destruction – it is in the reading of the litany of such events that the reader begins to understand both how important books are and why they and the repositories holding are regularly and dramatically attacked). He provides one overarching theme about “bibliocaust,” namely that the destruction of books is an “attempt to annihilate a memory considered to be a direct or indirect threat to another memory thought superior” (p. 14). In adopting this perspective, Báez eliminates the idea that book burning and library destruction is the work of ignorant and uneducated people and adeptly places this activity as part of a human impulse closely associated with the urge to save, commemorate, learn, and remember.

Without books, I never would have become an archivist and, eventually, started writing this blog.