I still don’t know why you’re an archivist

S novym godom / Happy New Year. Woodburn poster collection, National Library of Scotland.

That’s it really. If you’ve been reading Archivists’ Twitter this week you’ve read #WhyIAmAnArchivist and felt good, probably, about the profession and the people in it. We’re clearly care-workers; our for-the-love vibrations are mega-strong, and that just GETS YOU RIGHT IN THE FEELS. This posture also sets us archivists up for another round of gendered self-exploitation in the economy of care-work, right alongside nurses and teachers and motherworkers, but we’ll bracket that for a sec just to roll around in the feeeels.

This is an unscientific count, but most like two-thirds? of us responded to K-Roe with something to the tune of “Because history is important.” Sometimes it was “too important to crumble away,” sometimes it was “to be preserved for the future,” sometimes it was the “stories of people speaking to us.” Very few of us actually didn’t talk about history as a substance that could be passed along, or could crumble, or could be misplaced, like a fuggin’ sock or fugggin’ car keys. Only a few of us actually said WHY HISTORY WHATEVER THAT MEANS MIGHT BE GOOD OR WHATEVER:

That’s good, I mean that, and I feel you, but I want more, Archivists’ Twitter:

There we go. Yes. Now we’re getting some hot fyah:

I’m going to distract myself, if no one else, if I start to talk about how erotic that tweet is. That is high on the list of best erotic archives-history language ever. I mean, both in a highbrow Eros and Civilization or Life Against Death kind of way, but also almost, for me anyway, in a YA novella sort of way. Baring, undermining, leverage. These words, for moles, are virtually pornographic.

Man that’s good Twitter. Now we get to the crux of the matter:

I mean, once you read the tweets excerpted here, and then read a typical “because history is important” tweet, both of these flavors of thought coming from professionals in our discipline, you get a funny feeling, right? Like some of us don’t see history as an active continuum which includes and comprehends the present. Like some of us know history is important but won’t or can’t say why. I mean I get that your boss is looking over your shoulder, okay. But we really can’t answer “Why are you an archivist?” with “Because history is important,” that’s just displacing one absolute with another. Okay, why is history important? You can get all essentialist about it and be like “patrimony” which you might just as well render “family jewels” so why are those pearls of wisdom important? I hate to be the one to break this to you, but wisdom comes and goes. A lot (fuck, most?) of the West’s “wisdom” is a cabinet of curiosities — worth preserving as a reminder that learnèd gentlemen can be amazingly wrong; worth preserving to keep us KEYBOARD WARRIORS humble.

And more to the point, why do we want to be the vestal virgins, or the keepers of the crown jewels, or the little Dutch dude with his finger in the dike? See what happens when you conceive of history as a substance, with brittle paper its metonym? History is important –> History is crumbling all around us! –> I can save History! –> MY NEW ARCHIVING TECHNIQUE IZ UNSTOPABBLE. Suddenly history and its remains and universal human access to them are not the point. The point is our powerz. And I mean, I get giddy about having teh powerz too, but I try to keep it in perspec-

-yeah, never mind. But you get what I mean. When I’ve been called upon in my job to do something like this, I’ve given punt-responses too — my favorite is about democracy; nobody argues with democracy! — the real responses are either too real — involving heads on pikes, usually — or are just too long — involving dialectical materialism, usually — but you know, the people above have thought about what they want to do with archives, and they’ve done it without patting themselves on the back, so it can be done. Second round: Why really for-real for-real are you an archivist? Go.

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1 comment
  1. Maureen Callahan said:

    The obvious caveat is that (as you noted in your last post) it’s a constant struggle to be in the anti-nostalgia game when the institution (and people in the department) think that nostalgia is going to butter their bread. To me the irony is that if you take documentary evidence seriously, it’s hard to *not* complicate formerly-tidy conceptions of the past.

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