Friday, November 28, 2008

The archival imperative

For my freshman and sophomore years of college, my work-study job was in the university's rare books library. The actual tasks I was assigned weren't challenging--I paged materials, reshelved them, and worked on photoduplication orders--but it was entertainment enough for a nosey and bookish 19-year-old. I'd wander among the stacks and pull out illuminated books of hours or slivers of papyri just to gape at them, and I'd do my photocopying very slowly indeed, reading as much as I could of Ezra Pound or Edith Wharton's letters and trying not to drop the boxes in shock when I came across another American writer's hokey but very nude photographs of teenaged boys.

In the long run, this job turned out to be a useful introduction to archives and archival work. In the short run, it made me an object of mirth among my friends as I started adopting some of the library's organizational systems for my dorm room.

Take my correspondence files. I was once a serious letter writer, and up through my late 20s I still routinely wrote and received longhand missives. (These days it's dwindled mostly to cards--albeit sometimes with substantial notes inside--and at best a few letters a year.) Inspired by the manuscript collections I worked with, I started filing my correspondence the way they did in the archive, and I continue to do so today: I slit the envelopes along three sides, unfold the pages or splay open the cards so that they lie flat, and use the envelope as a loose jacket or clip around the relevant pages. Then I order them chronologically within file folders labeled by correspondent and alphabetized by last name.

I suppose it's a little eccentric to treat these letters--some of them going back to when my correspondents and I were 16--as if they deserved the care accorded to Pound's or Eliot's. However, not only is this the maximally efficient way for me to organize and refer to my correspondence, but it also encourages as healthy and non-sentimental an attitude as it is possible for the kind of person who hangs onto all her letters to have. Sure, it's lovely to take out the missives of an old friend and see her handwriting and familiar stationery. But keeping her letters in a file cabinet implies that they are, ultimately, historical and biographical records rather than objects to fetishize.

When it became clear that my ex and I weren't getting back together, I printed out all the emails I'd saved for one reason or another over the years, deleted the electronic copies, and interleaved the printed versions chronologically with the cards and notes I'd already filed. Then I wrote a terminal date (2001-2007) next to his name on the folder tab, slipped it back among the 30 or 40 other folders in the drawer, and rolled it shut. It felt like an agreeable bit of housekeeping: I wouldn't be stumbling upon shoeboxes of letters under the bed or stay email messages when I wasn't expecting them, but neither would I live to regret shredding or burning or deleting those items in a misguided attempt at "closure." If I needed them, they'd be there--along with hundreds and hundreds of letters from the more important and more enduring people in my life.

I'm pretty certain that none of my correspondence will be sought after by scholars of the future, but I have a mania for organizing and historicizing my own life: hence that box of old journals I lug with me every time I move, those files and files of letters--and, I suppose, this blog. Perhaps it's a disease peculiar to academics.


medieval woman said...

Flavia, this is a really lovely post and a nice little window into a part of your life! I like the notion of chronicling one's own life through carefully arranged journals and correspondance.

And you never know - one day the Huntington might just acquire the "early Flavia letters" for a cool ten million!

Anonymous said...

Actually, as a historian, I think your letters would be a nice "everyday people" source, especially since I think our generation is going to be a little bit under-documented in those years. That is, kids growing up today will have blogs, and people older than us maybe kept diaries and wrote letters, but I think there's a bit of a blank spot inbetween that your letters could help fill very nicely.

A library will be far happier to take them if they are going to be easy to catalog, too.

Susan said...

I'm with Dance -- as a historian I think your letters could be terrific, and historians a century from now will be very very grateful to you for your archival training. I have kept all my letters, but they are just in a box, not organized. A few years ago prior to moving I looked, and found letters from junior high about people I can't remember for the life of me, but who were clearly major players in my life at the time!

Jess said...

I *love* this system and I wish to adopt it. I don't have most of my letters' envelopes anymore, and some folders will have to be categories rather than individuals (people met on a particular trip, for example, with whom I corresponded through one letter-cycle and never heard from again), but I think that I could adapt.

I'm always excited to learn about new organizational systems to implement! The OCD is an itch that needs frequent scratching.

Thoroughly Educated said...

I'm very relieved that I'm not the only one! I had a phase of ordering endless supplies of acid-free archival storage products and periodically when I'm at my mom's I work on arranging the family papers. In fact, in the weeks after my father died, when I was staying with my mom, I found great consolation in getting his papers into appropriate storage containers labeled with date ranges. That Christmas, when it didn't seem appropriate to exchange gifts in the festive spirit, I got my mother a metric sh*tload of...acid-free folders and boxes!

What Now? said...

I love this notion of archiving as a way to achieve "closure," as both you and TE demonstrate!

phd me said...

I'm impressed that you kept your ex's correspondence. Rightly or wrongly, my first impulse at the end of a relationship is to purge; I have no record whatsoever of one of my most important relationships, which may bother me somewhat in the years to come (it was rather formative, if traumatic).

Of course, I'm impressed by your archival impulse, too!

Doctor Cleveland said...

Now I have a perverse impulse to send Flavia a card with writing all along the edges of the envelope, right where she customarily slits.

Worse still, I'm wondering how to send her a letter (however short) with letters made out of bits of fruit.

Flavia said...

Dance and Susan: well! I'll live in hope, then, that I'll achieve some kind of posthumous fame and/or a pre-posthumous windfall from whichever lucky archive winds up with my effects.

TE: that's a really lovely story. And as WN suggests, for me at least there's always been a powerful emotional connection between physical and psychological orderliness.

(And now you have me hankering after proper boxes and other archival materials!)

Dr. C: your first impulse wouldn't affect my customary practice unless you're proposing writing on the pointy razor-edges of the envelope--which would require illegibly tiny script. And as for your second: my closest high school friend and I once competed to see which objects we could and could not get sent through the mail. I think I won: I glued a stamp on a lightbulb and wrote her address on it in magic marker. It was delivered, albeit postage-due.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Flavia, is that a challenge? Never underestimate my ability to expend nearly pointless effort.

I think the smartest thing about archiving your ex is the way you converted digital items to analog in order to put them away. The last time I executed a similar purge, I already had all of the ex's e-mails in a special folder (I'd given the ex's messages a priority filter), and the digital pictures were more or less in one folder too. But I forgot that I had *audio* files until I hit shuffle on my music player and heard the ex's voice. Brrrrrr.

Renaissance Girl said...

I have a similar filing system, I confess, though I don't take the archivist's tactics to your extremes. My letters are just alphabetically filed, and by date. But I've found myself torn about this big box of letters to and from my ex-spouse. I'll keep them, of course, but I wonder sometimes whether my kids, when they eventually stumble into that box, will feel like they've got a useful and heartwarming insight into their parents' relationship and young lives together, or whether it will produce a pang of remorse and regret and nostalgia and renewed loss for them.

I also keep all drafts of poems. Because, you know, the biographers.