The Archive

I had the best time this week going to the University of Maryland special collections. I spent about three days there and that was a good amount of time. However I feel like I could just look at old stuff in the archives forever and not get bored. Seems like there’s a lot of it there. 

 

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This is just a small part of the media archive which one of the archivists took me around to see. Most of this is history of broadcasting stuff - old TV broadcasts, films, transcripts and the like. I thought that the library might have a collection of transcripts or some recordings of the National Student Federation weekly broadcasts they did during the 1930s - often on the subject of the role of the university student in politics or the depression. My assumption is once the war came these broadcasts probably stopped. The NSF was very interested in being anti-military, anti-war, pacifist, and helping students build communes in order to make university affordable. I can’t think of a more relevant political platform for 2018 for students.

Archival material doesn’t have much value on its own no matter how it was acquired. It gets value through a process of rhetorical invention which is more hermeneutic than anything else. The researcher goes to the archive for sources for her arguments. She looks at the material with a sense of “what it is” in her head. The result is the genesis of persuasive rhetoric that explains the past to the present. This does not mean the archive has been used up. On the contrary, it should be preserved for a re-visit by another scholar over some time.

These materials are valuable because of their inventional capacity. The idea is they help us create a world based on what came before. This can happen by mimetic property: “They faced these same issues and did X,” or it can come through an identification: “They thought like we do, we think like they did, they recognized things about politics or the world that we feel are very modern, etc.” It can also come through recognition of a scene or a slate of possibilities as familiar to us today, as I did just above in my thinking about the NSF.

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What helps us avoid a charge of revisionism here? I think this question is only relevant if you are doing a particular kind or type of history, a modality of history that even historians would consider to be oversimplistic and a bit rediculous. That modality is one where we recover the past to know what happened. We determine the facts and then we know about that time. No historian, I hope, does this sort of work. If they do, they are not really that interested in the critical application of history for today - it’s more of a sort of preservation of really nice dishes that are never used. That sort of preservation has value I suppose, but it’s a lot more dangerous to believe one has accessed or acquired the past rather than one has objects and texts from the past that need interpretation for us here and now. It is that operation that gives the archive value.

I had a great time talking to the archivist about some of the political issues involved in archiving. One is a shift in mindset by archives to be a lot more about product not process. A horrifying statement to anyone who works in composition or rhetoric to be sure. What he means is that there’s a trend for archivists to consider themselves creators of knowledge instead of just the custodians of a set of materials who investigate, sort, and make labels for that set. This seems like a good change as they can articulate what the archive itself means. In fact, there are people who do work on the history of the archive - meta to be sure, but meta interesting.

Finally there’s the archivist question of value. There’s limited space and limited labor to classify everything, but then there’s also limited understanding of what might be important in the future. How many rediculous coffee cups or jackets should be preserved in a collection? What if you toss the one set of forks that really matters for future research? This sort of thing seems very pressing and interesting and there’s no good answer. A question of situational reasoning to be sure, and worth some study.

It was a great visit, and I got a lot out of it. I made some vlogs about it, but the hotel internet and my hotspot were way too underpowered to upload what I made. I’ve been using Lumia Fusion on the iPad and I love it. It’s the perfect video editor for me - very basic and to the point. However my little iPad barely has the memory to hold the rendered files, so it would be good to be able to upload them right away. Once I’m home this afternoon it should be no problem. It was pretty annoying not to be able to post those videos every day. They’ll be up here soon.