Archives as Stories, Stories as Archives

Biographer, essayist, and novelist Tracy Daugherty’s book on writing – Let Us Build a City (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2017) – includes a passage that, in my mind, evokes the meaning and purpose of archives: “Stories, like building, are social sites and mediating spaces, meeting spots for writers and their readers, carefully constructed areas where private and public lives overlap. Entering an old building, we may hear creaks and mysterious settling – ghostly voices – speaking to us from underneath the smooth façade; may feel invisible others observing our most intimate acts. Similarly, we may wonder about the relationship between a story’s surface and its foundation: how do history and memory shape, support, or wrap a narrative?” (p. 16). Anyone who has read my blog or assorted essays knows that I connect stories and archives together in close harmony. I continue to worry that archivists are not always as creative or imaginative as they should be, opting to focus on the technical aspects of their work and missing the grander notions of what their holdings mean for society. If we think of archives as social sites, mediating spaces, meeting spots, and so forth, I believe how we view ourselves and our roles becomes more dynamic and relevant. Many archives have thought of their repositories as important places for conferences and consultations about the past and its role in the present, but, unfortunately, not to the extent where journalists, politicians, and policymakers naturally think of us. More often than not, when we are thought of it is in hackneyed stereotypes of places covered in dust or secret chambers where ghosts might roam. Despite many efforts over the past half century to engage with the public, we still have a long way to go to achieve that goal. But, perhaps, a better way to look at it is to see it as a continuing challenge and one that should be very interesting.

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