Monday, December 01, 2014

The Dangers of Nostalgia

I've been thinking a lot on what makes an archives a good one or a bad one. Of course these are totally subjective terms--"good" and "bad"-- but I assume if an archivist steps inside a repository and sees certain things, it throws up a red flag and an institution can get piled into the "bad" category pretty quickly. Some of these things might be.... a really huge backlog, or maybe improper preservation techniques, or you see a silverfish on your sweater.

But to me, the thing that really kills an archives is nostalgia.

Now, many people who are not archivists think that the archival profession is built on a foundation of nostalgia, but I would argue the exact opposite. Archivists have to be ruthless in their rejection of nostalgia. I do not ever, ever keep something because it's got great packaging, or because it "seems really neat." My job as an archivist is to look past the trappings to the information contained therein, and assess it with a cool head. I usually ask these questions of any item coming into the archives:

1) Is this item already being preserved by another institution, or can I safely assume it is being preserved elsewhere?

2) Does this item fit within the scope of my collection? If it does not, what is the exceptional circumstance which is compelling me to keep this item rather than passing it to an institution into whose scope it does fit?

3) Is this a high-information object, or is it duplicating information which can be found elsewhere?

4) Is this an item which I am beholden to keep by law or historical expectation?

See how far down the list "beholden" comes? LAST PLACE. Because in truth, I am beholden to keep very, very little in the grand scheme of archives. But if I am not careful and vigilant, I could end up keeping all kinds of things which are thrust upon me by nostalgia. Special Collections have this problem too: "Oh look how pretty the binding is on this 1874 edition of Alice in Wonderland! We should keep it!"
Should we? If my collection scope is strictly American South in the 20th century, then it doesn't matter how pretty the binding is, it does not fall into any category under which I am entitled to keep it. My job in this case is to find an institution who *does* collect these things and make sure it has a safe home there.

Now, getting back to archives, this same problem applies. "Don't you *want* to keep these 50 posters announcing the President's Convocations at the university over the past 5 years?"  This is the wrong question. The right question is "Do I have the space to keep these 50 posters which offer no new information, but only duplicate exactly the information I already have in my files and in the actual transcriptions and video recordings of these convocations?"

Archives are not blessed with infinite resources or space, and the fight against nostalgia is one that we probably fight every day, in some form or another. An archives which does not fight against nostalgia, which embraces it instead, is probably not a very good nor useful archives. It will be an archives with a huge backlog or unprocessed material, with more coming in all the time, which has no sense of itself or what community it's supposed to be stewarding. It will try to be all things because it assumes that no one else "cares" about these things as much as it does. All of which are dangerous to an archives' long term health.

No comments:

"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.