Vergil, Petrarca, Howell, & the Eternal, Open Moment of the Archives
by Joseph Nicolello
An American scholar at work in an archives must be deeply grateful not just for the persons and materials at hand, but for the wealth of scholarship available on the archives itself. One in an archives is likely at some point – particularly with prolonged, regular usage of said archives – to start pondering at some point how in fact the materials make it to the table at which one is sitting, in my case with cradles, weighted lace, and dulled scalpel at hand. In some cases the research unfolds into a question of authorship, time period, acquisition, and the movements which eventually lead to the home institution. Director of Manuscripts and Archives in the Yale University Library Christine Weidman’s 2006 article “Accessioning as Processing” sheds light on these questions. Although critical functions of the archives such as digitization have only accelerated since the piece was written, I find much of her insight prescient in a manner that is not constricted to an institution such as Manuscripts and Archives at Yale, with its then-staff of twenty-six, 58,000 linear feet of holdings, and an average of 5,000 reference requests each year.
How, for instance, can the archivist decrease wait time in making materials available to a given interested party while facing the various obstacles of the archive in the age of digitality? Weidman offers both case studies and specific insights such as the seemingly banal exchange of more boxes forthcoming as a necessary part of less descriptive boxes, in order to keep the engine of things well-oiled. “For us,” writes Weidman, “that is an acceptable cost for making the materials available for research more quickly and keeping them out of the backlog, but it might not be so acceptable for a small repository with limited staff.” This hypothetical caveat is apparent to anyone who has worked in different types of archives; but it is doubly indispensable for the researcher, on one hand, and the students of archives, on the other, in more realistically approaching each archives encounter. Along with Greene and Meissner, Weidman affirms that a more well-running archives works to
encourage thinking about arrangement and description in flexible and creative ways. Every repository (and every collection) has unique circumstances that will dictate what can and should be done in the area of arrangement and description. In the past, it has primarily been arrangement, description, and preservation down to the folder and/or item level. For many of us, this is no longer a realistic option for every collection that we take in or that is already in our backlog. As some repositories have already begun to do, we have to be willing to test new methods, analyze their consequences, refine as needed, and share our experiences with colleagues throughout the profession.
This definitional and practical extension of the archives is also detailed in Carolyn Steedman’s “Archival Methods” from Research Methods for English Studies (Edinburgh University Press, 2005). In both cases we are less than reconsidering than learning altogether how “What you read in the archive is in that eternal, open moment” (Steedman 27).