Reading Dust is a bit like experiencing an overwrought Sunday sermon, where one’s attention is occasionally captured by a pearl but is usually sent adrift by verbiage and syntax meant to please the preacher more than the congregation.
So says Joel Wurl is his review of the book for the American Archivist. He was referring to Chapter 6, but it could apply to most of the chapters, I think. In reviewing the second chapter, the one of dust and various kinds of archive fever, I came away with a different analogy. I felt like I had just watched a show on PBS that was very clever, featuring many experts in different fields, each speaking confidently and sometimes amusingly about their own area, each for a short soundbite. The experts are strung together by a lively narrator, sprinkling in anecdotes of her own personal experience. When you finish watching it you feel as if you were entertained and learned a few facts, but if you stop and think about it, the whole doesn’t hang together very well.
And I am the only one who wondered, if it’s true that researchers are commonly struck down with illness from their extended communion with archival documents, what about the poor archivists who work with them every day? What thought does Steedman spare to the lowly archivist, poisoned daily by such dangerous materials? (Although not, of course, subject to the more fanciful “fever” of never being able to absorb all the information in the records or tell all the stories present there.) Are we immune from the physical illness as much from the psychic one for the same reason: that archivists don’t customarily spend time attempting to breath in the spirits (and hence their dust) of every individual document? Our distance gives us immunity. Do archivists romanticize the collections they work with? I suspect not. We appreciate them, value them, honor them, become exasperated by them, and perhaps occasionally come to loathe them, but I don’t think we ever approach them with the same feverish perspective that Steedman describes. And it is not only our distance that gives us immunity, but our understanding that it is the archives’ mission that the documents will be preserved forever. Unlike the rushed historian of Steedman’s essay, who is constrained by a limited schedule into feeling that the documents will only “exist” for her for a short time, the archivist knows that the documents will still be there tomorrow, next month, and next year. One historian will come and look them, and then another, and another.
Certainly new archivists may, at first, be carried away with the romance of the documents, but over time they become immune. It is not that archivists don’t believe–passionately believe–in the value of the collections, but that is different from this more abstract relationship described as “archive fever.” The exception I think, and we may all know of an illustration of this, is the occasional historian working as an archivist. These exceptions don’t achieve the kind of distance that archivists do. And it is this distance, along with our sense of the archives as permanent, that I think give us our immunity from the “archive fever” that scholars are subject to.
But what about you–do you agree that we’re immune, or are just subject to a different strain of the disease?