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What We Remember: A Reading List on Archives

collage of archived materials, from handwritten letters to vintage photographs
Collage by Cheri Lucas Rowlands / Images via Pexels

By Hallel Yadin

Countless philosophers have posited that what we keep determines what we remember. The material we deliberately preserve provides insight into what we value, and what we expect to value in an unknowable future. This raises the question: Why do we keep what we keep? Who decides? And, how does what we keep affect what we collectively remember in practice? If what we collect determines what we remember, we have to be mindful about what we’re willing to lose. These are questions I consider regularly as an archivist.

This is a collection of articles about the objects — and the people collecting and interpreting them — which constitute our shared material heritage. “Archive” is loosely defined here: Some of these are formal institutional archives, while others are public Flickr albums or simple websites maintained by a single person. But all of them are in some way lost or inaccessible. What we let slip away is just as instructive as what we labor to collect.

The Day the Music Burned (Jody Rosen, The New York Times Magazine, June 2019)

Appraisal is the process by which archivists decide if an item or a collection fits into their repository’s collection. Many factors go into this, but one of them is whether the material in question is archival at all — is it rare, or even unique? And if so, is it original? There’s a lot wrapped up in the mystique of the original, but in this article, Jody Rosen offers some exceptionally practical reasons that originals are valuable. Investigating the 2008 Universal Studios fire, which destroyed tens of thousands of music masters, Rosen’s article examines how this loss was also a destruction of our shared culture.  

The result is a crisis, a slow-motion assault on our musical heritage that is poorly understood by many within the record industry, to say nothing of the public at large. Had a loss of comparable magnitude to the Universal fire occurred at a different cultural institution — say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — there might have been wider awareness of the event, perhaps some form of accountability. Yet the conservation mission faced by record labels may be no less vital than those of museums and libraries. Recorded music is arguably America’s great artistic patrimony, our supreme gift to world culture. How should it be safeguarded? And by whom?

The People Trying to Save Scents From Extinction (Miguel Trancozo Travino, BBC Future, January 2020)

Scent is a fundamental element of our environments. It may seem impossible to archive, but Miguel Trancozo Travino explores projects that are attempting to do it. One graduate student is attempting to create an archive of scents, for instance, while a researcher and visual artist is creating “smellmaps” which interpret the scents of a landscape. As these projects demonstrate, it’s very possible to break scents down and record their component elements. The challenge lies in also capturing the human element, or what a scent means in context. There is a long-standing framework for preserving “intangible” cultural heritage, and researchers and artists working on scent projects argue that they are doing just that.

But why does a town’s smell matter? What valuable information is written into the odour of a city, street or building? It runs a lot deeper than just preserving a scent for its novelty, says Alex Rhys-Taylor of Goldsmiths University, who specialises in the multisensory experience of urban space. “I would say, through my research, that you can learn a lot about a city’s economy, a lot about its culture, through the sense of smell.”

The Queer Past Gets Deleted on eBay (Jesse Dorris, The New Yorker, August 2021)

Jesse Dorris prompts us to consider the “why” and “how” behind the material that never ends up in an archive at all. The history of archiving from ordinary people is mixed at best, and further complicated when the ordinary people in question are perceived as “deviant.” Records from marginalized groups are often collected by community archives, which are typically under-resourced compared to their more established counterparts. Sites like eBay are treasure troves for those records that may not be collected by traditional institutional archives. That means, though, that key historical material is vulnerable to the whims of a major corporation. 

This was put in stark relief when eBay banned the sale of “sexually oriented” materials, much of which was queer books, periodicals, photographs, and more. Dorris focuses on queer leather and kink publications, but the archival exclusion he discusses is true of many queer publications, whether they contain sexual content or are sexualized by virtue of being queer. As Dorris points out, the history at stake is of interest to more than just archivists and historians; curators, filmmakers, and other cultural workers draw from eBay as well, as do queer people trying to salvage their own historical legacies.

As marginalized communities become more assimilated into the mainstream, Johnson’s archive stands as “proof of who did it, what was done, and who was there.” But no one knows how much more of this history remains to be discovered and preserved. “My biggest fear,” Purchell said, “is that people who come into possession of this material will not know what to do with it. They won’t think it has value. And they’ll throw it in the trash.”

The Kept and the Killed (Erica X Eisen, The Public Domain Review, January 2022)

This is a fascinating investigation by Erica X Eisen of “killed” photographs from the U.S. Farm Security Administration’s attempt to document the Great Depression. Killed photographs were meant to be excluded from the collection and demarcated with a “merciless” hole punch through the middle. (Photographs were killed at the discretion of the project’s head, Roy Emerson Stryker, and it seems that most of the ones destroyed were redundancies of some sort. That said, a number of his colleagues — and photographers — felt that he killed with a little too much abandon.)

Eisen examines what was lost when the photographs were killed, and what we learn from the hole-punched pictures. Archival material doesn’t just tell the story of what it is representing. In other words, the FSA photographs provide historical clues about their subjects, but the objects themselves have a history as well. The visible efforts to obscure the objects add another layer to their history, one that is legible.

In the killed negatives, we find Barthes’ dictum literalized: it is the little hole or holes themselves that arrest our eyes and imagination. The strange contradiction at the heart of the killed negatives — as the very existence of this essay attests — is that in an important sense they weren’t killed: the hole-punched photos remain in the Library of Congress, preserved by Stryker himself, and the Pittsburgh Photography Library images deemed unfit for the archives have instead come to comprise their own separate archive in the same building, a sort of Salon des Refusés … In the subtle but unmistakable way that Stryker’s puncture marks reveal the three-dimensional negative from which each two-dimensional image is printed, they call our attention to the fact that a photograph is a physical object and a fragile one at that.

The Brink of Erasure (Narayani Basu, Contingent Magazine, July 2021)

Archives and power, especially state power, have a complex reciprocal relationship. Narayani Basu explores the challenges of doing research at the National Archives of India, where these two topics collide. These challenges — byzantine catalogs, an inscrutable internal language, a lack of access to materials — impact historians along with anyone whose field benefits from an understanding of the past. This highlights the fact that those who hold archives, and by extension knowledge, also hold power. State actors can wield this power in part by controlling who can access knowledge. 

This is by no means limited to India; for instance, the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States was set to close and sell the National Archives at Seattle, until a successful grassroots campaign reversed the decision. If the sale had gone through, it would have been a double whammy of sorts, because the National Archives at Seattle contains records transferred from the National Archives at Anchorage when that institution was shut down in 2016.

Uninhibited access to archives is — and should be — an essential characteristic of a democracy. There is much to glean from the study of the past. I say this not just with regard to history, but to politics, law, society, culture, economy, and science. Researchers who use an archive are usually from varied academic backgrounds. In itself, this brings a considerable nuance to an archive: of pluralism and diversity of interests. The records of past choices are proof of the fact that every decision has a consequence. Citizens of a democratic society hold the right to understand their past as well as the right to learn truths governments may find uncomfortable or contentious. In this sense, an archive holds a government and society accountable. It helps a people understand the motivations of previous public officials and the workings of older regimes. In its best form, then, a nation’s archive is much more than a keeper of its records and memories. It is a living testament to the many facets of national identity and history.

Who Will Save the Food Timeline? (Dayna Evans, Eater, July 2020)

Dayna Evans tells the story of a remarkable project by New Jersey librarian Lynne Olver. For decades, Olver single-handedly built the largest resource on food history on the internet, in direct response to the topics admirers asked her to research over the decades. This is a story about what access to historical materials looks like. It is one thing to amass a personal library of 2,300 books going back to the 17th century; it’s entirely another to make that  information public, legible, and useful. Evans explores the impact that the Food Timeline had on its users, from podcast hosts to home cooks. This is also a story about how precarious and unsustainable these undertakings often are. After Olver passed away in 2015, her family struggled to find somebody to maintain the Food Timeline. That is where the Eater story ends. Never fear, though — the project ended up finding a home at Virginia Tech University Libraries.

When you look past the Times Roman font and taupe background, the Food Timeline happens to be the single most comprehensive inventory of food knowledge on the internet, with thousands upon thousands of pages of primary sources, cross-checked research, and obsessively detailed food history presented in chronological order. Every entry on the Food Timeline, which begins with “water” in pre-17,000 B.C. and ends with “test tube burgers” in 2013, is sourced from “old cook books, newspapers, magazines, National Historic Parks, government agencies, universities, cultural organizations, culinary historians, and company/restaurant web sites.” 

What Are COVID Archivists Keeping for Tomorrow’s Historians? (Laura Spinney, Nature, December 2020)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been intensely researched and documented, especially in contrast to historical pandemics like the 1918 influenza outbreak. At Nature, Laura Spinney gives a good overview of COVID collecting efforts. What are 21st-century archivists collecting and saving? What are the risks and concerns of archiving, especially in our age of misinformation and an oversaturation of data? Spinney also touches on groups and countries that are less likely to have the resources to collect — and why.

Others are storing souvenirs of people’s lived experience — video diaries, mask fashion, recordings of the quiet of locked-down streets. Or they’re salting away objects that the pandemic has rendered iconic: the signage around the lectern from which UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to the press; a wooden spoon that a little girl broke while banging her family’s cooking pots in support of medical personnel. For the first time, a pandemic has triggered institutional plans for rapid-response collecting — an initiative pioneered by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (its virtual COVID-19 collection even includes a toilet roll).

Raiders of the Lost Web (Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, October 2015)

The internet is big, and it may seem permanent, but the sheer prevalence of link rot suggests otherwise. Unless websites are actively archived, they are subject to be lost forever. However, web archiving is a complicated and expensive undertaking; even with the presence of major projects like the Internet Archive, a critical mass of material is lost every day. Adrienne LaFrance details how access to knowledge is, in some ways, knowledge itself, and how much is at stake when we misunderstand the internet as a stable entity.

The promise of the web is that Alexandria’s library might be resurrected for the modern world. But today’s great library is being destroyed even as it is being built. Until you lose something big on the Internet, something truly valuable, this paradox can be difficult to understand.

The Archivists of Extinction (Kate Wagner, The Baffler, October 2018)

How do you archive a landscape? Architectural historians and others interested in the built environment must rely on representations of their object of study. As Kate Wagner explains, the built environment around us changes more quickly than we may expect. Who is saving records of ordinary buildings, the ones where average people live their lives? As it turns out, at least in the case of America’s vanishing Kmart, it’s Flickr users.

This is the ice-cold reality of the retail death spiral. It’s why people feel the need to collect motel postcards, share old photos of their hometowns, and document the finale of Kmart. The end time is always lurking; the only thing you can do is take pictures and post stories before it happens. There is no alternative, there is no saving your childhood home after it’s caught in the crosshairs of the developer; there is no salvaging the hotel ballroom where you held your wedding reception; there is no rescuing the Sears where you worked your first job. These photographs and stories are not celebrations of great architecture, but they are an epilogue born of existing and preemptive grief for beloved objects and spaces ground up in the gears of money and progress. For these populist archivists, the project would not be so urgent if there were a scintilla of hope for a future without the ceaseless, inevitable ruination of so many landscapes, buildings, and cultural artifacts.

***

Hallel Yadin is an archivist and writer in New York City. 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


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