Archival Diamonds and Rust
3 min read

Archival Diamonds and Rust

Outside of the archives, I don't go in much for the power of an object, what Walter Benjamin (in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the one piece of literary theory that I've ever fully understood, with apologies to everyone I lied to about that at the University of Oregon between 2007 and 2009) called its aura. I'm an ebook reader, and a compulsive discarder of clothes. I was recently called out by a friend for mentioning that I wanted to delete my early fiction. "You're an archivist," he patiently explained, but archivists are the worst deleters of all; we've all seen self-indulgent collections that no one looks up. It's not that haven't devoted our lives to history's detritus. It's that, if we're going to leave our dirt behind, we want it to be the stuff with the diamonds in it. When Joan Baez wrote her scorching elegy for late love, she didn't call it "Rust."

Anyway, when it comes to the archives, I believe in Benjamin's "aura" as much as any Sonoma County psychic believes in mine. Objects in archives are much more than themselves. Sensory information clings to them – sight, smell, the sound they make in motion. You pick them up to find their previous owners' cigarette smoke, their fine hairs, the double exposures of their photographs. To take in archival information is to see in three dimensions, while to read a book is only to see in two. That's why I don't really mind what format my book is in, but I mind very much the format of my archives.

I've spent the past year as a digital archivist. Many of us have. I do know archivists who've been visiting their collections routinely, but others, including me, have been away from their collections since last March, and are only just beginning to come back again. My return to the archives has been triumphant – just shatteringly moving. The sadness of the year away from the vault had everything to do with the lack of that third dimension, the dimension of the sense and the vibe. I'm very proud of the digital collections we've built this past year – relying almost entirely on digitization work that was done long before quarantine, and often for completely different purposes – but I'm a manuscript archivist at heart, a painter rather than a photographer. I can't tell you how much more right, how much more reasonable, I feel now that I can connect with the artifacts again.

What concerns me about all this, though, is the matter of accessibility. If you need to see the archives in person to access all their dimensions, where does that leave people who are unable, for physical or financial reasons, to visit in person?

It's clear that my researchers have treasured the new digital collections. The limit on that isn't the format – it's size and thoroughness. People imagine that digitization is easy and quick and cheap, but it's really none of these things. Scanning materials, writing metadata for them, organizing the digitized materials so that they're usable, it all takes time and skill. That's why most archives rely heavily on grants for digitization. They allow us to hire temporary staff, or to farm the work out. This also usually means that a given project's scope is limited, and so is its theme, because you need a grant to tell a story. Other collections, equally worthy, might be left out of the project because they don't fit the theme.

The fact that the researchers are getting so much out of the online collections is especially impressive given all this, and it makes me want to digitize more, to open the archives virtually, 24/7. But how can we translate the aura? How do we replicate the feeling of opening a folder and finding a notebook with a broken binding, filled with pressed wildflowers half gone to powder? Or the surprise of opening a box of artifacts, unlabeled and unlinked? Even the intuitiveness of archives is hard to replicate – online collections may have confusing interfaces, but archives, if they're processed at all, never do. The interface is "open the box and look inside."

My examples here are a little overblown, I realize, but perhaps this is the point I'm trying to reach: you can translate the aura by describing the collection. This doesn't have to be an archivist's work, either. It can also be a researcher's. Some of my researchers are artists, and they translate the archives by replicating and riffing on materials in them; others are writers, who translate them as writers do. One of my favorite projects to come out of my day job, Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma's We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, translates the archival aura with careful selections that mimic browsing Lou's diaries, and subtle bits of book design that mimic their appearance.

I suppose that all I'm saying, then, is that archives need archivists and researchers to really be alive; they need all kinds of labor, all hands on deck, if they are to be translated into a form that people can look at from a distance without losing vital information. Archives don't usually get that much labor, because even the best-funded ones are underfunded, but they should. We're all becoming the past right now, and we owe it to ourselves to give the past what it deserves.