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, February 04, 2009

The Error World

Simon Garfield, The Error World: An Affair with Stamps (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009) is another lively, personal account of collecting. The reference to “error” is not a suggestion that collecting is inherently wrong (although Garfield’s personal memoir of a failed marriage and excessive spending indicates that the title also is intended to indicate that collectors can get into lots of trouble), but rather that the focus of his philatelic pastime was on stamps with printing errors, some quite rare and valuable. As he relates, “I don’t collect ordinary stamps. I collect stamps with error, with absent colors, with printing faults. It doesn’t take long for my marriage guidance counselor to make the connection between what I collect – stamps with bits missing – and my family history, which has been a life with people missing” (p. 3). As is usually the case with these kinds of personal accounts, we learn a lot about the stuff being collected, the marketplace supporting it, and the psychology of collecting: “Old stamps, especially line-engraved, have the power to transport the collector to a place in their childhood and far beyond,” just one example of the kinds of personal insights offered to the reader (p. 90). Later, Garfield comments, “I did not tend to question my collecting habits. I just enjoyed them. I thought that one day I might put everything on display and have my own little museum for the appreciative. But nowadays there is no avoiding the conclusion that my collecting habits are tied up with the death of my father. . . . [Collecting stamps] is a “solace, and a way of restoring order. They may suggest an element of control in a fateful world – everything in its place, just like the old days” (p. 114). Since archives are full of historical and valuable stamps, as well as the end products of many personal collections, and, in addition, a tempting target for thieves wanting to rip-off items to sell on eBay, this is a good book to spend some time with; it is also a respite from the task of reading the often much more dry and dense scholarly and professional literature.