Archival Process as Plot Mechanism

As I read “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, I thought of my current pleasure read, Lev Grossman’s Codex. One of the plot threads in Codex is a treasure hunt of sorts that takes the protagonists to a rare book library’s off-site storage facility to search the mound of unprocessed material, hoping to find a medieval manuscript that may or may not exist. While Greene and Meissner’s argument–that archives should focus resourcing on quickly, minimally, processing material rather than being exhaustive–applies more to institutional records than rare books, the same potential for a mound of “lost” information exists. The characters have gotten to the point where they’ve broken into a secure facility because they searched through all of the various databases at the library and the card catalog and couldn’t find a trace of this book. The same potential for discovery–and on the other hand, occlusion–rears its head in a whole subgenre of fiction. From Umberto Eco to Dan Brown, the idea that some treasure map might be out there somewhere if you only knew where to look has kept readers turning the page.

One of my favorite books of this ilk is A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which not only delights in archival discovery in a way that would make Arlette Farge proud, but also captures many other facets of archival acquisitions.

Possession‘s opening scene begins with one of those discoveries, as Roland Mitchell comes across drafts of a letter tucked inside a famous (fictional) poet’s copy of classical poetry. After a moment of moral dilemma, he slips the pages into his own book. Having done a bit of research in archives since I first read the passage, it was viscerally upsetting during my most recent read-through.

These drafted letters, with real research (and intrinsic) value survived because they were protected in an accession that matched the institution’s collections development policy, even though the volume had gone untouched until Roland came looking for it.

Further along in the book, Roland and his colleague Maud discover a cache of more letters, and much of the second half of the book deals with where these documents should end up. A wealthy collector from the United States offers a substantial sum for the collection and promises access to researchers if they come to his compound in New Mexico. A stodgy scholar from the British Library makes a public appeal in the hopes that he can halt the American’s purchase. It all seems very arch and unlikely but it shows many of the forces at play in archival acquisition. The letters’ current owners are an elderly couple with mounting healthcare costs who mostly want to be left alone. As in real life, they are relentlessly courted. The letters, written between two famous poets, fit under the collecting aims of multiple archives, and they have to negotiate, with each other, the owners, and the courts, who should end up with them.

As the explosion of archival accessions continues, pragmatic processing in the mold of Greene and Meissner will enable for more startling discoveries because a curious scholar will know where to look, if not what they will find there. The number of secret medieval manuscripts may dwindle away to nothing, but there will be plenty of minutes, audits, and correspondence to yet reveal dramatic truth, in real life and in fiction.


One Reply to “Archival Process as Plot Mechanism”

  1. If you’re in the mood to be saturated with more hot library fiction, definitely add Lirael by Garth Nix to your reading list. It has one of the dreamiest descriptions of archives ever – plus magic!

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