Archives and the dead

Advocacy for archives under threat — from funding cutbacks, hurricanes, public apathy, copyright holders, lawyers generally — assumes a faith that archives are alive. That they ingest material and output products. If you’re not a fan of state government, you think of your archives, when you think of it, as a parasite or virus, siphoning resources in order to replicate its own RNA and release more archivists into the world.

Archives are at the cusp of life. Our traffic in them is rooting down the dead.

In part, archivists perpetuate a dead science — office management. The bulk of the collections in any major institutional archives, whether in a university, governmental body, religious organization, or corporation were formed in the 20th century by secretaries, clerks and administrative assistants. Women (and some men) who identified correspondence as “personal,” “personal and confidential,” and so on. Women (and some men) who created files on topics of interest, and arranged them alphabetically. And who, when correspondence was antedated, or when topics were no longer of interest, sent folders downstairs to the “dead files,” or the “morgue.” And when photographs, or films or papers became entirely useless to the institution, they were sent to the archives, their final resting place. A dead science, and a systematic management of death.

What terrifies us about genealogy — meaning ancestor-hunting, not anything Foucauldian — and which we only express in a kind of sub rosa annoyance and impatience with genealogists, is necrophilia. Sub rosa, because no archivist would admit that our job is to seal off the dead from the living, offering ever-more precise and authoritative descriptions, surrogates, and virtual encounters in an attempt to buy off the grave-robbers. Our unacknowledged work is to keep the dead dead.

Genealogists dig and scrabble and scrape. They pile up mounds of names, divorced from context, linked and relinked and posted and reposted, xeroxed and faxed and carboned and retyped. Against all archivists’ work to carry the orderly dead into the orderly future, the genie roots out a pinky knuckle and ferrets it away to barter with someone who has a big toe. The dead, whom we had brought together in heavenly array like in a Byzantine altarpiece, are picked over and their parts are Frankensteined into ghoulish masses of uncouth semi-knowledge.

The assumption that community- or participatory- or social archives amount to a tyranny of disorder, or that minimal description or mass digitization or the digital, period, undermines our capacity to preserve materials’ historical context is haunted by taboo and superstition, and, left unexamined, will surreptitiously undermine all our noble declarations of institutional glasnost.

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