Intellectual fluff and archival immunity, or Chapter 2

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?

5 thoughts on “Intellectual fluff and archival immunity, or Chapter 2

  1. “. . .but over time they become immune.” Jaded perhaps?
    Immune would imply a disease. Archive fever? No, not like Steedman’s historian. Its more like a fetish, a document fetish, in a sense. This has been derided in the literature and the popular culture, of course. Making fun of the gatekeeper archivist. And graduate educaton programs are certainly attempting to provide this vaccine before anyone enters the archives for their first professional position. Don’t get too attached to the documents, or the subject thereof, they say. Stay a free agent — your knowledge transcends. But can’t a document fetish really damage your professional development? Certainly. Over time you will get detached from something. If that detachment is from the profession, the literature, best practices, yes. Here is where you find the horror stories of the “archivist” that kept it all, to themselves, with arrangement and description of their own imagination. But a little document fetish is a good thing in this profession, lest we become too immune, as you say. Immune from the historian and genealogist who have passion for the story or family, immune from concerns of preservation, immune from wonder about the “original.” We should at least cultivate an appreciation for the uniqueness of what we manage, not only in the objects but in the context – if you’re an archivist there is value in that.

    A bad sports analogy — free agency (detachment). Has it been good for the game? For most of the players, yes. Certainly technical competence and achievement are greater than ever, compared to players of the past. But what about the fans (your users)? Can they tell your loyalty is to the game (profession) and not the team (stuff)? If so, maybe try to be less detached at times. Maybe its not ever going to be fetish-like, but your users do expect some passion, which is difficult if you are immune to the fever.

  2. I think we agree. I must not have expressed myself well. I agree, as I wrote, “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 best archivists (I think) are passionate about using the collections to help people. It isn’t the collections per se that arouse this, it is their capacity to enrich people’s lives. That’s I think the difference. Archivists aren’t immune from wanting to help people–that’s the whole point. Which is, as you point out, the opposite of what a document fetishist is about.

  3. I dearly hope that researchers have a bit of healthy detachment, as well, and an ability to look at collections as tools rather than fetish items. As a researcher and not an archivist myself, I think we need it to keep from overestimating our own importance. The idea of “archive fever” actually gave me a little trouble because the only part of it I really understood was the feeling of never being able to finish all the work!

    There are moments of discovery, or rather re-discovery, that are exciting, of course; museum curators and collections workers have them occasionally, and I would be shocked to hear that archivists didn’t. But the fever as consuming made little sense to me in that essay. Instead, I bookmarked page 77, where she wrote: “The search is for all the ideas and times, and images that will give us, right now, solidity and meaning in time, and they are as various as: a great queen’s passing, a story of gender relations in a household of the 1840s; or faces illuminated by the gas-flares at a union meting, the travails of all the century before last’s child labourers.” Is that what it is about – seeking a sense of deep confirmation and relevance in external things? That might be something that you only find if you are actively searching for it, or at least a rarer thing to suddenly encounter in a moment of surprise while going about your daily work.

  4. I’m still reading the book, but I have read past chapter 2 now, and since this post isn’t too old, I figure it might not be too late to comment.

    I guess I read this chapter differently than everyone else because it seems to me that Steedman is really making a somewhat elaborate joke. The joke is partly at Derrida’s expense, but as Steedman writes in her acknowledgments, Dust “neither promises nor delivers an engagement with his thought” (viii). So instead of being an in-depth look at the intellectual idea of “archive fever” the chapter is kind of like a shaggy dog story revolving around a pun on “archive fever”:

    “Let me tell you about archive fever. [Many details follow.] So anyway, towards the end of my research trip I realized that I was going to run out of time to look at all the records I wanted to see and I started to feel ill. I was even sick for a bit after I got home. I guess that’s why they call it ‘archive fever’!”

    So while I think that Steedman is serious in her suggestion that Michelet’s illnesses may have been a result of his work with archives*, and while I don’t doubt that she and other contemporary researchers have experienced something like what she’s calling “archive fever” in this chapter – in both the psychological and the physical senses – I don’t think she’s making the broader, stronger claim that what she’s describing is what it’s “really” like to work in archives or even what it’s really like to work as a historian. I do think her rhetorical style sometimes suggests otherwise, but she’s pretty clear in the introductory part of the book that she’s talking about a particular kind of historical practice and, I’d add, a particular kind of researcher.

    That said, I pretty much agree with what everyone’s said above about how archivists approach – and need to approach – archives differently from historians, so they’re not as susceptible to the kind of anxious, psychological fever Steedman describes (to the extent that she’s describing a real affliction). But I do want to add one thing along the theme of literal, physical illness. In my preservation class, our instructor took some time to talk about occupational health and safety. Among various other hazards, like fire or flood, she also talked about things like mold and toxic gases (from the decay of cellulose nitrate, for example). I’m still pretty much new to the field and haven’t personally encountered anything worse than a small amount of decaying nitrate photographic negatives, but it does seem that dangerous “dusts” are still out there. Probably not so much in records that have crossed the archival threshold, but maybe something one might run into when doing appraisal?

    *At the same time, part of her discussion of Michelet also seems like a joke within a joke, poking fun at one of the origin stories of modern historical method.

  5. Mold, mildew, and other “dusts”, pests, and toxins are definitely part of the archival experience, Andrew. Mold, in particular, can be extremely dangerous (and notoriously difficult to get rid of!). Sometimes donations have to be turned away because they are in such a bad state but sometimes you don’t realize exactly what state things are in until they are already in your holdings or something (like a disaster occurs setting things off). For those of us without ability to do much in the way of conservation (or, sometimes even simple preservation like keeping stable temp/RH) these hazards are a real threat – to the collections and to the archivist!

    When reading this section, and Kate’s post, I briefly, charitably gave Steedman the benefit of the doubt – perhaps she thought our Occupational Health & Safety always met best practices but, in less charitable moments, I figure she simply forgot about the poor archivists, despite her attention on the papermakers, the tanners, and the historians (ie pretty much everyone else who ever came into contact with the documents).

    As for our immunity to Real Archive Fever, things only really get feverish when deadlines (for exhibitions, publications, grants etc) loom and the fonds NEEDS to be scanned/described/appraised. Otherwise, I have been sick to death of dealing with certain records but have never seen any other symptoms 😉

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