Dreaming of Books


A few days ago I happily received an order of seven recently published books on the topic of archives, privacy and transparency, and memory. Given my recent struggles with my vision, cataracts and related issues, this represents a daunting reading task. As I am between eye surgeries, I am reading far more slowly than ever before, although the process of reading more slowly may have increased my pleasure and value in the process. Given these relatively recent physical challenges, what accounts for the pleasure in receiving this box of print books? Would it not make sense for me to read on a laptop or a tablet where I can enlarge the words and reduce the eyestrain? Obviously, much of the joy comes in the physicality of the book, each representing a distinct, if closely related, topic, providing a text I can mark up with my comments and whose arguments I am just as likely to remember from the size, design, and color of the physical object. Yes, I am a traditionalist, if not a curmudgeon, providing a stark contrast to many of my colleagues in my school.

Like many others who like books, I find that I dream about them as well. They come to be time capsules for charting and remembering events in my life. I thought about this recently as I buried my father. Although he was not an avid reader, he kept me supplied in my early years with books, and he focused these gifts on historical themes, fostering my developing interest in the past. Each book brings memories with it, and reexaminations of them for teaching or research bring such memories back to life. When I sit back and scan the bookshelves at home or in my university office, it is nearly equivalent to reading a diary or personal letters. My acquiring, reading, and rereading such texts are the substance of my own personal documents or archives. I seek ideas, insights, and evidence about particular interests. More importantly, I do not manage these as if I am doing Google searches; rather, I read and explore volumes that connect with my interests and from this broad and deep reading emerge ideas for my own research and writing projects. Call me old-fashioned.

Reflecting on this also prompts me to think about some personal challenges stretching before me over the next year as I approach retirement and how these may also reflect the ongoing transformation of higher education. The first of these is whether I will be writing any more books. I have generally measured my academic career by the completion of books. But books seem not to be as valued as much as they once were in the university. Now, and admittedly this is just an impression, the emphasis is on the speedy accumulation of essays and conference papers and, better yet, grants. The idea of spending a lengthy period of time, sometimes years, researching for a major study advancing knowledge in one’s field seems to be likely to be discouraged in many parts of the university. Now entering into my final full year as a university professor has me shifting my attention to pulling together a variety of partly finished projects to determine if any of them form a core for a new book or books, efforts that will take me well into retirement. That I am doing this is also testimony to the fact that I too was distracted by short-term demands. One of the factors in my decision to retire was my interest in redefining my own scholarly writing projects back to my own timetable and away from an assembly-line kind of production targeted at publishing in the right journals with the highest impact factor. As I am a humanist focusing on historical and archival topics, it is not a game I can play very well.

Something else I am mulling over is how and what I read. Apart from reading essays, conference papers, and magazine articles, my focus has been on reading books. But the challenge is on how I read books. I acquire books, building my own personal library and making the books my own by marking them up. I constantly refer to them in preparation for teaching, my work with doctoral students, and my own research and writing projects. As I move toward retirement and think about downsizing with my wife, I realize that the amount of space taken up by my physical library (and hers too) will have to change. I will need to be more selective in what I choose to acquire in terms of printed books. The greater challenge is in determining what of the present array of thousands of books I will need to weed out. I started this process, but it is slow moving. I am presently thinking that I will identify critical texts in certain areas of my interests that I might find useful for finishing some of my future publication efforts.

What is enjoyable to think about, of course, is reading just because of my own personal interests, ones that have nothing to do with what I have taught or on what I consider my specialized areas of expertise. I intend to read more broadly and deeply into art history, supporting my own interests in painting. Over the past decade I have found some peace in pursuing these creative activities, connecting these creative impulses to my own scholarly and professional activities such as writing and teaching. I sometimes think that creativity is discouraged in the university, that we are pushed and prodded to do work that is measurable and repetitive. I know that not everyone feels this way, but I am concerned about how the next generation or two of academics will grapple with such issues. Will they push back, or settle for safer routes to tenure and promotion, job security above all else? Only time will tell about what happens, but I think we ought to be concerned about the future role and mission of the university.

I have always been a book-centric individual and for much of my time in the university this served me well. However, the university is changing and not always in ways that will foster such interests. While we have seen a resurgence of interest in public scholarship, much of the corporate-tinged university provides anything but a space for such scholarship. By retiring, I hope, I can return to such interests and pursuits. Only time will tell, but I look forward to the possibilities.

Archives as Human Remains, Human Remains as Archives

Jay D. Aronson, in his Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), writes, “Human remains have political, cultural, and emotional power” (p. 3). His study of the efforts to recover the remains of the dead at the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 while trying to determine how to memorialize the victims and re-develop the site explore this power in detail. He also notes that the “recovery, identification, and memorialization of the victims of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks brought science to bear on the questions of identity, politics, and memory” (p. 19). This is an important, insightful study of the politics of memory and memorials, one demonstrating how complex remembering and celebrating can become. Archivists have long recognized the connection of power to record making and keeping, and they will discern in this study many aspects that are familiar to their own work and the obstacles they sometime encounter in doing this work. We learn about advocacy, competition among architects, the sometimes-convoluted relationship between government agencies, private citizens, and for-profit businesses, and the role of the media.

However, the focus of the book is on the human remains. Here is an example of the author’s sense of how we have transformed the manner in which we deal with such materials: “What is clear is that DNA technology has irrevocably altered the way we memorialize the dead, whether their remains have been identified or not. Whereas a tomb of the unknown, in a war memorial, or a common burial ground valorizes collective sacrifice to the nation, the repository in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum is the physical embodiment of the technological dream that unidentified remains may one day be made personal again, and returned to their families. The repository is not a final resting place, even though many of the remains will never be claimed. Rather, it is a storage facility, albeit a dignified one, supporting an ongoing forensic investigation by a government scientific laboratory” (p. 255). Archivists might pause over this assessment. Technology has changed and is transforming the way we think of archives and the places, real and virtual, they reside in. The notion of digital forensics is also affecting how we perceive archival permanence. And the notion of permanence, as in archival value, has been questioned for a long time.

I recently buried my father and this caused me to reflect on the notion of our documentary remains and the idea of memory. It is difficult, at times, to deal with how transitory memory is and how easily distorted it can become. Thinking about this, makes one realize why the families of the 9/11 dead fought so hard for having a voice in how we memorialized the attacks. We also must recognize the emotions and concerns moving documentary sources to an archives can cause for the surviving family members and acquaintances. Developing empathy for such aspects of our work can only make us better archivists.

More Information, Less Understanding, and Archives

Watching the election results was interesting, even illuminating. The reporters, commentators, and “surrogates” – all arguing with each other in often less than civil terms, certainly, from my perspective, dispelled any notion that living in the “information age” means that our citizenry is better informed. Indeed, there seems to be a stubbornness not to accept what one does not believe or want to believe no matter how much evidence contrary to such positions is presented, including even the candidates themselves. The idea of listening to or reading about various opinions and seeking common ground seems old-fashioned or, more problematic, impossible. Given the misreading and misinterpretation of polls and other data also ought to call into question the enthusiasm we have for Big Data and its uses. Many of us have discussed the nature of and use of data as transformative elements, often embracing them with a kind of religious fervor, but what we witnessed on November 8th should cause us to rethink such ideas. It may be just another example of the unintended consequences of technology commented on by many observers over the past few decades (and even longer ago).

There are, of course, other such consequences at play. As I have written about in my last couple of blog postings, archivists and others need to re-evaluate how they articulate their mission and the ways in which they advocate on its behalf. Speaking up on behalf of the importance of evidence and the need for records to be preserved so that we may understand the nature of the past seems like a much more difficult argument to make. Many of us wondered about how hard it must have been for the President to meet with the President-elect, given the vitriolic exchanges during the extended campaign. Imagine, however, the difficulties the Archivist of the United States or the Librarian of Congress might have if they met with the President-elect. Mr. Trump is not, by all accounts, a reader, so what would he and the Librarian of Congress discuss? And given the President-elect’s disdain for transparency, what would be the topic for a meeting with the Archivist? It is doubtful he has read, at least closely, the founding documents the National Archives houses and displays. Of course, it would not have been any easier if Clinton had won. Jeffrey Toobin in his statement, “Another Round,” in the November 14th “Talk of the Town” in the New Yorker gets to the heart of the challenge with both candidates: “Trump is a serial liar, a shady businessman, a bigot, and a sell-proclaimed abuser of women. Clinton has a sometimes unsteady relationship with the truth and a faulty devotion to information security” (p. 31). This is not a solid foundation to build information and records policy.

The information professions’ compulsion for all things Big Data must also be called into question. This recent election demonstrated how data can be misinterpreted and how it cannot be relied on above all other aspects of our digital age. On the other hand, as archivists, we must commit to preserving the data generated by the election as a means of understanding just what happened. Admittedly, one thing we learned is that all the evidence at hand, no matter what it indicates, will not persuade true believers to change their minds, including our incoming president who manages by his guts, shoots from the hip, and does not weigh facts. We must remember that the mission of the archivist is to select, preserve, and make accessible evidence for the long haul. Managing our documentary heritage for future historians and other researchers is very different than being blown about by the political pundits and other often biased observers and commentators, Our role is to document their activities so as to hold them accountable to future generations.

There are other things archivists might re-evaluate in the aftermath of this election. First, they should reaffirm to working with communities, indigenous groups, people of color and different sexual orientations, and other groups seemingly marginalized in this election. Our commitment is to all of society, not just elites and those in power, This past generation has seen archivists broaden their mission, and we need to reaffirm its importance. Archivists, at least many of them, have come to value accountability, evidence, memory, social justice, and the notion of a multi-verse – all elements they must hold onto and argue for in this new contentious era of nativism, racism, and injustice. While some archivists disdain any form of political agendas in their work, they must, nevertheless, acknowledge that they labor in a political world. Archivists have long understood that records and the archival repositories they reside in are shaped by power, and they must develop new ways of contending with this reality. Studying and understanding the nature of our documentary universe requires archivists to comprehend the political, social, and economic context leading to their creation and maintenance.

We can understand this better by recognizing the new role of social media and cyberattacks in our recent political campaigns. Just a few years ago, in the so-called Arab Spring, social media was heralded as the primary tool for a new democratic resurgence. Now we know that there were few lasting positive effects of its use, at least in terms of fostering democratic governance. Again, archivists need to focus on preserving, to the best of their abilities, the role of social media in political events and movements, but they also need to understand the limitations of the use of this media and what other traditional documentary forms can tell us about the recent political events. The archival community has always been a bit wobbly in how it sees itself working with new and emerging digital technologies. But this is only part of the challenge archivists face. They need to recommit to a stronger and clearer social mission, even if it is one that places them on a collision course with government leaders and others. Preserving the documentary materials is a task that is not about making us or anyone feel good. It is about holding each other accountable for their actions and empowering all portions of society, not just those in charge. This represents an intriguing challenge. I wonder if we are up to it.