A few days ago, a hard drive containing the unfinished novels of Sir Terry Pratchett was crushed by an old-timey steam-roller by the executor of Pratchett’s estate. The event was captured in a series of tweets from the late author’s account and covered by such news outlets as the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, and the Washington Post as well as aggregators such as Mashable The Verge, and The AV Club.
Why did this (admittedly odd) event attract so much attention? I think largely because the crushing had resonance with the “embuggerance” Sir Terry lived with for seven years before his death in 2015: early-onset Alzheimer’s. This loss of memory echoed that one. Sir Terry’s legions of fans took the news hard all the way back in 2007, in part because one of the trademarks of his fiction was the quickness of his wit; it seemed cruel that it should be dulled by something beyond anyone’s control.
My summer practicum is in the rearview mirror. Two and a half months and 140 hours later, I’ve accomplished quite a lot, but it is still surreal to reach the end. In order to make sense of my work and document it, I am required to assemble a portfolio, and so here it is!
Both of my internship projects began with documents. At Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel, the documents filled 7 filing-cabinet drawers. At the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks (PhilaLandmarks), there were only a few account books and a bundle of receipts. In each piece of paper, whether fifty years old or two hundred, I found a spark of connection and revelation. Unfortunately, in neither project did I have the opportunity to dwell too long on any one page.
At Chamounix, my job was to sort through those seven drawers and winnow the accessionable and valuable parts from the filler. Since there seemed to be no organizational scheme, I also tried to impose one. With the help of Margery Sly, I created a rough processing plan which guided my work, but the reality became messier. Many folders and binders contained a variety of documents–board minutes, treasurer’s reports, receipts, catalogs, newspaper clippings, and letters–which had to join larger folders or be set aside for the shredder and/or someone with an affection for vintage invoices. This was time-intensive work, and my desire to extend order to the document level (which was unsustainable) made it more so.
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.
Update: PhilaLandmarks wrote about me (and mostly these documents) on their blog! If you want to learn more about these account books and Elizabeth Powel, check it out!
Perched on an office chair on the third floor of the Keith-Hill-Physick (henceforth “Physick”) House, I gingerly pulled off the lid of the box–one of those boxes that letterhead comes in, with “Powel 2006” scrawled on it in sharpie–and peeked inside. Two account books with marbled boards, and a loose stack of letters, loosely held by a bit of twine that had kept them together for two centuries and was enjoying its retirement.