Losing, Finding, and other thoughts on Archives

“The Art of Losing”

A few weeks ago, I saw a play. It’s not something I do nearly enough. I went because my brilliant friend Christine directed this play and I wanted to support her but also I know she’s good at what she does and it seemed like a good reason to get out of the house.

The play was called “The Art of Losing,” the title taken from the poem “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Go check out that poem. It’s great. Christine and her collaborators took Bishop’s poem and used it as a central mantra in an impressionistic one-person show about all of the things we have lost, lose every day, and worry we might lose. The play’s great too, and watching it in a dance studio with maybe 8 other people was an experience I’ll (probably) never forget.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how though we often think of archiving as a way to hold on to things, it is really a sort of losing. We have to forget to be able to remember (what will be lost so the memory of the play sticks with me?), and likewise, winnowing and deaccessioning are vital to any archive. Identifying what is important to keep means there is something less important.


Your daily aphorism courtesy of a “losing” search on Flickr. (Image by Abundance Thinkers via Flickr Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/qEWjKs)

This privileging of certain types of records over other serves to create a navigable archive, but it also reifies systems of power. It is this entrenchment in domination that led Jarrett M. Drake, Princeton University’s first Digital Archivist to announce that he’s leaving archives. Drake has been a great voice for diversifying The Archive (For example, read his talk here about archiving police violence in Cleveland during the Society of American Archivists meeting there a few years ago), and I will be sad to see him go. Gadflies are needed in this day and age.

So I enter the processing stage of my archiving at Chamounix with these thoughts in mind: what am I forgetting in order to preserve the story of the hostel? What systems am I reifying? The collection has individual reservations for decades of hostel use and we’re likely going to leave those behind for a variety of reasons; what story might they tell?

I’ve also been thinking about how the documents change when they leave the crowded, damp basement of the hostel. How can the papers retain a feel of the house that generated them? “The Art of Losing” will change profoundly if it’s staged somewhere else. There is loss in live theater too.

The Importance of a Good Finding Aid

This week I spent a chunk of one day looking at some of the other documents of Elizabeth Powel’s life at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). I was hoping to look at any account books that pre-date those that I have been surveying for PhilaLandmarks to see how Mrs. Powel’s lifestyle might have changed over time. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the account books…yet. I’ll be back sometime soon.

I did find a stash of loose receipts very much like those in PhilaLandmarks’ hands, but my struggles in locating the account books were a reminder of the pitfalls that can beset archives. Basically I got lost in the archive.

What happened, as far as I can tell, is this: I started with an online finding aid for the Powel Family Papers. Actually I started with two. When I requested E’s financial records 1789-1799, I instead received a delightful box of E’s pocket almanacs with little notes and memoranda inside, but all were from after 1815. Some aid from the archivist on duty helped me realize that I’d asked for the box number according to one finding aid, but specified the collection number of the other finding aid (only one of them had a collection number). I finally got the records I’d tried to request the first time–those loose receipts–and made it halfway through the stack before seeing that there was a second reference, in one of the finding aids, to account books in particular. It is still not entirely clear to me if there are actually two Powel collections at HSP (which overlap extensively in content) or simply two finding aids referring to the same collection with different box and folder numbers.

My takeaway is two-fold: I need to read finding aids more closely and as I write a finding aid for the Chamounix collection, I need to keep in mind the folks who might use it somewhere down the line.

This is all helpful to keep in mind this week as I started sorting the Chamounix collection into rough chunks: administration, building documentation, publicity, etc. It’s going to be tricky to figure out where the lines are, and a finding aid will go a long way toward making sure that the hypothetical future researcher (Oh man, do I hope someone actually uses this collection!) can find what is there.

With less than a month to go in the practicum, things are moving forward: actually sorting the Chamounix papers, understanding Mrs. Powel’s handwriting and abbreviations, learning what “japanned” means. *Raises glass of iced coffee* Here’s to me getting these projects done in time.

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