The Allure of the Archives


The recent appearance in English of Arlett Farge’s The Allure of the Archives seems especially poignant in how we may be adjusting ourselves to see the value of traditional paper archives. This scholar emphasizes how all sorts of evidence become embodied in government archives, both intentionally and unintentionally, providing an “infinite number of possibilities of representing reality. “In the end, there is no such thing as a simple story, or even a settled story,” she writes. “If the archive is to serve as an effective social observatory, it will only do so through the scattered details that have broken through, and which form a gap-riddled puzzle of obscure events. You develop your reading of the archives through ruptures and dispersion, and must mold questions out of stutters and silences” (Arlett Farge, The Allure of the Archives, translated by Thomas Scott Railton [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013], 94).

Allure, meaning having an attraction or charm, is the perfect word for expressing our sentimentality for all things archival. Countless young students arrive to start graduate programs in archives, but some lose their excitement when their notions of archival work and responsibility are dashed by the reality of what archivists now do and how archival work is presently seen.

Farge’s account is unashamedly about old paper records, perhaps a surprise for some who see us needing to contend with all the nuances and challenges of the present digital age. Some might think this focus is due to the fact that this is a new English translation of a book originally published in 1989. However, other recent publications of major books on paper suggests that the interest in paper today goes deeper than this, perhaps a reaction to the focus of all things digital (see my earlier post on the “Persistence of Paper”).

Being attached to paper is not good enough in itself; we must use this resource wisely. Archivists would assume that this means preserving evidence on paper, but I would add that it is writing that is important enough that you do not have nightmares about destroying trees or cluttering up libraries with junk. Other scholars and commentators have re-committed themselves to producing superlative and clear writing that not only reaches (and teaches) but inspires the public to understand both the past and present of their society. Historian Jill Lepore is a notable example of a public scholar. In a recent collection of essays, mostly written in her New Yorker column, Lepore reveals her effort to deal with serious historical topics in the form of well-told stories; not only do we get treated to exemplary academic writing, but we get peeks into interesting episodes from America’s past and its most compelling figures — John Smith, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allen Poe, Noah Webster — and a variety of intriguing events (The Story of America: Essays on Origins [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012]).. This is a book to read for inspiring yourself to write better. No one can say that she is wasting any paper.

As many have reflected on both the positive and negative influences of our reliance on digital information technologies, there has been a nostalgic longing for printed books, bookstores, and libraries — and for nearly anything that is paper. We are also now looking, rather wistfully, at handwriting as a highly personalized extension of our personality and our place in our society. Some commentators have even suggested that as we do everything with digital devices that we are losing an important way of expressing ourselves (Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting [New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2012]). Paperwork, a term long associated with the rise of the modern state and often possessing a pejorative meaning, has become an object of study featuring all of its contradictory meanings. Ben Katka offers us a “psychic life of paperwork,” analyzing early modern France’s creation of documents and record repositories, the latter numbering more than five thousand on the eve of the French Revolution. This scholar notes that the storming of the Bastille found only seven prisoners housed there but more than four hundred boxes of documents concerning the more than four thousand prisoners that had been there since the mid-seventeenth century (Ben Kafka, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork [New York: Zone Books, 2012], 15). The result was both an archivist’s and historian’s dream, an alluring one at that.

Books have provided a kind of harbinger of how society considers the archival function. At the least, the book, especially in its traditional printed format, has remained constant as a symbol of societal memory, an archive of the world. In a recent book, Alberto Manguel establishes this role for the book: “The book is many things. As a repository of memory, a means of overcoming the constraints of time and space, a site for reflection and creativity, an archive of the experience of ourselves and others, a source of illumination, happiness, and sometimes consolation, a chronicle of events past, present, and future, a mirror, a companion, a teacher, a conjuring-up of the dead, an amusement, the book in its many incarnations, from clay tablet to electronic page, has long served as a metaphor for many of our essential concepts and undertakings” (Alberto Manguel, The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013], 10). There has been a regular industry of publishing about the future of printed books, even while an increasing amount of bookstore space is devoted to e-readers. What is intriguing about the commercial sales of e-books is all the other stuff being sold with the device in order to make the reader look like a printed book or a manuscript diary. We now read like we diet, eating a dietary substitute for one kind of food while longing for another (the idea that as one diets that your food tastes change doesn’t work with e-reading either).

When given a choice between digital and analog formats, many people today opt for the older analog formats. Even in this era of digital photography, people still reflect approvingly of caring for paper-based photographs. Then we come to letters. Historians, biographers, collectors, and others have heaped considerable praise on their value. They provide the backbone for unraveling the past and adding colorful retails to its depiction. Wade Davis, in his splendid history of the efforts to climb Mount Everest, reveals one reason why he was able to write his book: “In an age of letters, it was not only the receipt of correspondence that maintained a lifeline, it was the grace and comfort that came in the moment of reply, when each man could share private thoughts, vent frustrations, and express fears, knowing that convention demanded discretion, and that a private letter between gentlemen or an intimate note between man and wife implied an inviolable trust” (Wade Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest [New York: Vintage Books, 2012], 343). Moreover, on a regular basis, books appear describing old style letter writing. While such books do not contribute much to the scholarship of the creation or value of documents or archives, they do capture something of the feel many people have for lost forms, styles, and artifacts of our documentary universe. It is a feeling many archivists bring into their jobs and even more students bring into the educational programs preparing them to be archivists. How to sustain their attraction to archival work, while educating them about the realities of contemporary archival work is the challenge archival faculty face.



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