Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mausoleums of history.

I am happy to report that my week of research went very well. The papers I were looking at were completely unorganized, subverting even the desire of the archivist to bring me out something more select, so I got the pleasure of shifting through 24 boxes all on my own. As it turned out, about 10 of those boxes had materials in them very useful to me (especially a core 3-4 boxes) and then the other 14 were pretty worthless and easily categorized as being so. Therefore, despite what the hard core might say, it is quite possible to get a lot done in an archive in a week.

I was once again amused by the archaic and sometimes somewhat silly “culture of archives,” let’s call it. In many ways, archives are beautiful and inspiring places to work in – they are big on the Grecian architecture, they have fine, beautiful wood tables with elegant lamps, and they are decorated with the historical portraits of notables. The silence in an archive, and the seriousness which seems to hang from the shelves containing reference works no one ever references, remind one that even in an age of iPhones, instant entertainment and the always latest, newest thing, there are still quiet places which revere the past and the quiet contemplation it requires.

On the other hand, archives can also be stifling places to work. I personally cannot stand studying in total silence and therefore must bring in headphones to pipe in some classical music while I work.  While the surroundings are beautiful, after several hours of sitting they can no longer distract me from the ache in my back, the growl in my tummy or my undeniable need to stretch. Part of me feels like I get exposed as less than a true scholar in the archives – while others in the reading room seem to sit calmly and contently during the entire day, I am often fidgeting, yawning, stretching, or even muttering quietly to myself when amused or confused by something I come across. It is like I lack scholar Zen, or something. And then there is my inability to get there right when the archive opens – I always sleep in a half-hour or an hour later than I should. This week I managed to get there right on time once in the week, although as it turned out, it never mattered because I finished early on my last day anyway. But the very aesthetic of research makes one feel obliged to flip on the internal Puritan switch.

Then there are all the rules. Let me acknowledge that some of these, even most of these, make plenty of sense. They do not want you bringing in large backpacks – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in pens – makes sense. They do not want you bringing in a jacket – wait, what? Because I am going to try to smuggle 40 year old documents from some obscure sociologist out in my jacket and sell them on eBay? Granted if I were say, reading letters written by John Adams (which I in fact have the bragging rights to), this would make more sense. But it isn’t just big, bulky jackets that one might conceivably be able to muffle the sound of crinkling paper with that they forbid, but almost anything that makes it difficult to discern your cup size. I always forget this the first day at an archive, and therefore always spend it shivering, rubbing my arms to try to keep warm. And this is with long sleeved shirts; these places are kept quite cool.  Fortunately, well-fitted sweaters are allowed.

Finally, and more seriously, the very formality of archives makes me somewhat sad. The fact that these are elegant, quiet places that require IDs and badges to get into seems to point towards how selective their clientele, how encrusted with the nobility of insignificance the boxes that make up its contents. In the heydays of Jacksonian democracy, no one thought it a great sin to bring a giant piece of cheese into the White House to stink the place up for a few weeks – but now that such uproarious participation seems quaint, we have guided tours and gilded hallways, as though we trying to honor American democracy through mystification of its past, rather than participation in its present. The archive I went to this week was particularly poignant in this regard – let it suffice to say that it started out as something approaching the true spirit of citizen participation in a republic: but today, it merely seems like a well-decorated tomb for forgotten history, the kind of place only the educated and the elite of the country return to. As beautiful as archives are, they also serve to remind me how much of our history has become precisely that - rather than a living, present reality that we all must grapple with.

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