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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Archive fever, vol. 8: Mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations

At one end of the room, in a recess, were a number of barrels, piled one upon another, containing bundles of official documents. Large quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering on the floor. It was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months of toil, had been wasted on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes. But, then, what reams of other manuscripts--filled, not with the dulness of official formalities, but with the thought of inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep hearts--had gone equally to oblivion...

Hey, we're back in Nathaniel Hawthorne's nineteenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. There was a great article in the NY Times this weekend about the problem of digitizing archives and everything that gets left behind or isn't conducive to archival preservation. The article begins with a look at how John Steinbeck ephemera that's not easily scanned is faring:
These Steinbeck artifacts are not the only important pieces of history that are at risk of disappearing or being ignored in the digital age. As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in nondigital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes.

"There's an illusion being created that all the world's knowledge is on the Web, but we haven't begun to glimpse what is out there in local archives and libraries," said Edward L. Ayers, a historian and dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. "Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users."

To be sure, digitization efforts over the last 10 years have been ambitious and far-reaching. For many institutions, putting collections online, for both preservation and accessibility, is a priority. Yet for every letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Seward that can be found online, millions of documents bearing fine-grained witness to the Civil War will never be digitized. And for every CD re-release of Bessie Smith singing "Gimme a Pigfoot," the work of hundreds of lesser-known musicians from the early 20th century are unlikely to be converted to digital form. Money, technology and copyright complications are huge impediments.

Reading it, I thought once again of The Scarlet Letter and how the story is based around the narrator's discovery of the letter and an account of its owner, Hester Prynne, in the Salem Custom-House.
Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner; unfolding one and another document, ... glancing at such matters with the saddened, weary, half-reluctant interest which we bestow on the corpse of dead activity,--and exerting my fancy, sluggish with little use, to raise up from these dry bones an image of the old town's brighter aspect, when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither--I chanced to lay my hand on a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment. This envelope had the air of an official record of some period long past, when clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography on more substantial materials than at present.

I'm thinking that the scarlet letter would not be easily archivable or preservable today. This framing device of a found manuscript among artifacts of forgotten history allows Hawthorne to riff on how historical memory can be transformed into a popular romance. The romance-writer needs only moonlight to transform an ordinary room--say, a dusty archive storage room--into "neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. ... If a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances."

The other day I read Thomas Pownall's Antiquarian Romance, a truly bizarre book published in 1795 by the former colonial governor of Massachusetts, who had an obsessive interest in applying Newtonian theory to...just about everything, including colonial politics and archaeology. He issued a six-volume report on managing the American colonies in the 1760s that compared the relationship between England and her colony as equivalent to the gravitational pull between planetary bodies, and he warned that this gravitational pull could change in time with other factors acting on it. Pownall found Newtonian theory everywhere he looked, and his goal in the Antiquarian Romance is to re-establish the lost "system" that connects the past to the present through complex (read: suspect) feats of comparative etymology, numismatism, and archaeology.

It would be difficult to describe just how bizarre the book is, but I'm really interested in what Pownall gets out of calling the book a romance. He makes the distinction between history and romance, and he insists that romance is his vehicle because it allows readers to piece together facts on their own:
Some men will pick out truths from a Romance, or at least from what is so called, rather than from history. Those facts, which are offered to them as history, they will dispute and reject; whereas truths, which come forward veiled in the fable of Romance, will, whilst they indulge flattering pride of unveiling them, steal upon their belief. Truths which lie thus concealed from the common eye, lie like the rough ore in the mine, which the student, by an exertion of his ingenuity, can elicit, refine, and bring to light, on the face of the world, as bullion, the fruits of their own discovery.

How many similes of discovery were there in those sentences? A lot! Counting them up, I'm reminded that the act of discovery is so susceptible to effusive description because it mirrors the act of reading itself. Keep reading, the narrators seem to say, and you'll discover something as spectacular as what I've just discovered! Or, in Hawthorne's case, the ghost of the orignial archivist will guide your path of discovery:
With his ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol, and the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him...to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public.

It is a romance after all.

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Blogger Scriblerus on Fri Mar 16, 01:17:00 PM:
I saw this article as well, and will probably use it in introducing my dissertation proposal. I am addressing the problematic of durability in the 18th, and it seems that starting with the problem of what went into print from manuscript versus what didn't (and when) is a fine place to start, especially given the tech changeover we're experiencing now. How to arrive at posterity? How to remain relevant to it? What lasts? Why? Please answer these questions and save me the trouble of writing a dissertation!