Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Archives

I had never done archival research until a few years ago, when I went to the Walter Reuther Archives at Wayne State University in Detroit to do research for my novel Grand River and Joy. I did not go behind the curtains of that astonishing place, but I do imagine that it would look something like the photo above because when I went to the front desk and perused the listings and found the reference numbers for the items I wanted, I wrote them down on a piece of paper, handed the paper to the fine person behind the desk, and went to sit down (as instructed) and wait.
     Not long thereafter, a nice young man came along pulling a large dolly that contained five or six boxes about the size of the ones in those photos above, and he left them all beside me. Needless to say, I was stunned. I had never expected that I was making such an enormous request (it seemed routine to them), and I was amazed that they were willing to just walk away and trust me with the whole thing. So . . . nothing to be done but get to work. And I did. I spent a whole day, looking through all the papers that those boxes contained. It was fascinating, and much of what I learned that day about the changing neighborhoods of Detroit in the 1960s showed up in my novel in some form.
     Not all archives are so well-organized as this one, or as the many other professional archives that exist at museums and universities around the world. Many people have archives in their own homes, and I suspect they are more along the lines of this, below. Although, even that looks perhaps more orderly than what many of us have in our homes.
Partly in honor of my experience at the Walter Reuther archive, I made a character in my new novel into an archivist. I'm sure that there are all kinds of archivists, and that they work in a variety of ways, but one idea I got from my research about archivists is that their job is to go through documents and other items that people have left behind in order to organize, label, index, preserve, etc., but not necessarily to interpret. Not even to consider what the documents might be used for, or whether anyone will ever use them. Not necessarily to question their meaning, if any. Only to put them in an order that may possibly make them useful to someone else.

At any rate, that is the situation I created for the archivist in my novel, and it is a role she becomes a bit impatient with in the course of the story--that is, she wants to be the one to interpret, find meaning, weave stories about a found treasure, not only to preserve and present to someone else.
My novel is finished now, and in the hands of others who will now decide its fate. And in the meantime, I found an essay I wrote about 10 years ago that I want to revise, as I feel it has a great deal to say but did not quite fulfill its potential when I wrote it back then. Interestingly enough, it is about an experience I had when I opened a drawer in my bedside table that I had not opened in many years, and it is about the layers of memories I found there, a number of them painful. So I am now involved in my own archival task--but taking both roles: she who finds and organizes as well as she who interprets and story-weaves.


Margaret P. said...

I love this post. There is a bit of the archivist in me. But also the interpreter. My parents are here this weekend. Today I continued to record my dad reading his autobiography. I take each chapter, clean up the recording and add music. To use the right music, I have to listen with an interpreter's ear for the playful, tense, regretful, joyful, (and so on) feelings. At the end I will make a set of CDs for present enjoyment and the archives. Looking forward to reading your novel!

Susan Messer said...

Wow, Margaret. That is a labor of love. What a gift to your father and your family. The idea of finding the right music is intriguing to the max--so many choices. I often am amazed at how perfect the musical choices are in certain films, or in accompaniments to radio stories. It's a skill and an art in itself to find those tunes, build an atmosphere. Thanks for telling me about this.