Friday, December 16, 2011

Look on my work, ye Mighty, and despair

Yesterday, I finished the essential parts of a two and a half-year project. I'm not talking about my dissertation. I'm talking about an archiving project I've been working on as a graduate assistant. I helped organize a large collection from an organization that had donated its records to a library. (I'm being purposefully vague so as to protect my privacy and the privacy of the organization; needful to say, however, anything I write on this blog post or other blog posts reflects my personal views only and not the views of anyone at that organization or the entity that hired me or the library I worked for.)

In a real sense, it was not "my" project. There were several other people who worked on it, both before me--it was a three-year project and I was hired on four months into it--and with me. By my count, there were at least 5 (probably more) undergraduates, 8 graduate students, and at least 3 administrators who served the project. At least a few other undergraduates helped me do some important--and mostly thankless, although I thanked them--aspects of the project, mostly involving moving large and heavy boxes from one location to another.

On the other hand, it feels like "my" project, because I stayed on it the longest and probably am the one most familiar with the collection. For what it's worth, that does not mean I am the person the most familiar with the organization or with the types of matters the organization handled, but as far as the collection--what exactly it contains--I am probably the person who knows most, at least for now; a serious scholar who wanted to devote a few months to researching it would probably gain a more intimate and credible knowledge of the collection than I have now or will ever have.

An archival collection is something that is meant to preserve a piece of history. Preserving records supposedly has inherent value. Even if no one ever looks at the collection, the fact that it is "preserved" represents a good in itself. I should say, however, that a few people have already consulted the collection, and a couple more have expressed interest.

I realize that "piece of history" is quite a contestable term, and I am under no illusions that this collection reveals the "true" history of its donor organization.

I am also aware that in the process of organizing the collection, I have changed it and the history it represents, almost in a Heisenbergprinzip sort of way: I've changed the history by organizing it. I've made mistakes, only some of which I know about. Even if it's not a question of "mistakes," my very decisions in the organization process have set this particular documentary history of the organization on a somewhat inexorable path. The original collection was in a largely indeterminate order, and I and my colleagues made more "executive decisions" than is usual for processing similar-sized collections. But even records that come fully organized by the donor, there is a re-ordering that takes place, if only in that the holder of the records change.

I do feel that I and my colleagues have accomplished something. However, this accomplished thing will not endure forever, even if we can assume that the collection is a static "thing" that has been created. As sure as the United States will some day fall, the archives might someday fall in disrepair. With the possible exception of China, all the great empires have died, and even China had a rough 300 years or so during the warring states period (ca. 200 ad to ca. 590 ad) a rough 50 years or so in the transition from the Tang to the Song dynasty, periodic invasions and about 100 years of European and Japanese domination.

But it is a contribution, and I'm excited about it.


lindsay said...

congratulations!!! archive fever ftw!

Pierre Corneille said...

Thanks, Lindsay! By the way, are you going to be in Denver for Christmas? My s.o. and I are going to be spending a week there.