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St. Valentine's Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

St. Valentine’s Day Hop at the National Archives, 14 February 1975, NARA identifier 35810664

I am here to dirty the clean room.

I have never fallen in love with archives per se, and this is probably at the root of why I prefer to think/spiel about archivists, what they like, do, and need, instead. I have, however, a couple/three times, fallen in love in archives, had erotic encounters in archives, and so on, so there’s a literal component to why I see archives through the lenses of desire, romantic love, compassion. Or, as we had it in the deeply abridged and mixed-up Catholic teaching on love we got as kids: eros, amor, and caritas.

(All philosophers of Christian love should abandon ship here, because any consideration of who thought what about love in what way in the first couple centuries of the Common Era and what words they used basically lands Christians at C. S. Lewis and he frustratingly counts up Four Loves, which is no good for me because I need three things for my Lacan, Freud, Marx, etc. Seek shelter elsewhere is all I’m saying.)

My work is reliably physical, so again, it’s only a hop and a skip to see the handling of sheaves of text, or skins, substrates, emulsions, as ways of enacting desire. To get any knowledge about what I touch, there’s a lot of opening, paging or thumbing through (thumbs are erotic, says the palm reader, but I understand ymmv), and so on. The initial contact and exploration, the first enticing hints of what might be deeply and sustainably important about the collection or corpus, the discovery of its quirks and kinks — accessioning is the kingdom of Eros for archives, and that’s where I live all day.

Work in accessioning is like bringing a thousand houseguests into your bedroom every year: establish names, addresses, relationships, remove outer enclosures, pile your puffy coats on the master bed, add new enclosures, triage, decide who gets to stay, put them to bed. The first thrills of desire are I can’t help but think likewise a kind of triage: how does this work, what works, does everything work, is this at all real, are we just blinded by newness? The first stages or opening gambits of a love affair are all about acquisition — I want you, I need you, I have you — and appraisal — You will be mine and I want to keep you close.

Amor, as the dads of CCD had it, is romantic love, eros for them denigrated into something more like cupiditas, a fleeting, wayward, unreliable, momentary bliss. You may bring things into your holdings which don’t deserve to stay. Amor is the business of naming what will stay, and doing the work to keep it whole. All of this blog is an overextended conceit, but this is the greatest overreach: processing is a series of acts of romantic love. We undertake to remove from the body we want anything that will harm it, we pull metal, we breathe rust, we scrub dust, we house the new beloved body in clean clothes. Having gotten a grasp on the corpus, we achieve physical control. More significantly, we ask the newcomer about himself, we do a deep dive, who really are you after all, what are your contents, what is your scope, help me to name it, help me to name it.

Certainly all of you have seen and thought about that slightly annoying article in The New Republic, o which one you say they’re all kind of okay well here:

Go read, there’s enough rage-inducing stuff there to fill a whole other blog, but I was struck over and over by the outsiders’ — we all know that humanities Ph.Ds’ experience of research in primary sources is, well, variable — focus on the bodily presence of the archives, of its mutability and permeability: narrow stacks, well-worn handles on drawers, jeans, the fugitive poisonous adhesive of post-it notes, self-destructive cellulose nitrate. And if the author promotes a kind of fetishization of ordinary care, well hell so do we right? Our author even gets a little monarchist, but I don’t know, man, Eros rules me like a sovereign does a serf, so even this dankness didn’t faze me:

This is the sort of thing that the New-York Historical Society saves: flotsam, jetsam, things left behind. The curators follow closely in the wake of the city’s human activity, collecting the materials left behind by protests and vigils and attacks. The museum treats these items with a reverence rarely seen in any part of our culture. The archive turns objects into art the same way that a devoted servant might turn everything the king has touched into treasure.

It’s fine to acknowledge that new users come to the archives by way of bodily connection. I guess the only difference between them and me, in Accessioning Which is the Kingdom of Eros, is that I lack reverence for the bodies becoming guests in my house. I do not wrap them in muslin or mylar. I do not shield my hands with nyplex from their pages. I do not breathe in their vapors. That way lies a neurosis your boy Nietzsche diagnosed in 1874, in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie fur das Leben:

Man envelops himself in an odour of decay; through his antiquarian habit he succeeds in degrading even a more significant talent and nobler need to an insatiable craving for novelty, or rather a craving for all things and old things; often he sinks so low as finally to be satisfied with any fare and devours with pleasure even the dust of bibliographical quisquilia.

Caritas, always presented last, is for the dads of CCD, the highest form of love, and I disagree. Caritas is the love that lays down its life for a friend (John 15:13), meant to be the semi-literate Catholic dad’s version of ἀγάπη, abiding, boundless, and unconditional love. Perhaps there exists a love without conditions or boundaries, preset terms, default entries, perhaps between people ἀγάπη exists, perhaps between people and their god, but I’m not sure we have this in archives. Nothing lasts, the future is the obsolete in reverse, in the very long run we’re all dead: as an archivist you have to bend your mind to the idea that your world is material and entropy is its governing force. For outsiders this is an ironic stance: the people most dedicated to making texts (broadest possible sense) persistent don’t really think any of their work will succeed. If there is agape anywhere in our discipline, it rests in exactly this kind of humility, it lies in offering our bodies daily to an insurmountable task, to the presence of failure and loss, and at the end there won’t even be dust left to devour.

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