archive anxieties

Now this is, if anything, a cry for help rather than advice. Imagine you go to an archive, and have no idea what to expect. Imagine, then, it is not an archive curated by a historian, but an archive in a corporation, which partly burnt down in the 40s, and is now a collection of things, partly labelled, yes, but with no digital access or database. Then imagine you are pretty much at the beginning of your work and are not completely sure yet which name and date to look for, or which crumpled sheet of paper in all these folders will change history as we know it. Or not. This archive could well be a gold mine, but it might just as well be a land mine – not quite sure yet. The question might be that of timing: when do you go to an archive? I the beginning? The end? In between or just simply all the time? I am suspecting it’ll be the latter, and that is how I try to manage my panic about having not enough time right now for ANYTHING. I just tell myself I will be back in a few months.

Pretty much a nightmare. Or at least scary. Then we have another problem: if you know that other people will work in the same archive, though not in your discipline exactly, how do you position yourself? And how do you cooperate with a corporate archive without having to write for their Festschriften? On this I am totally clueless. I am excited and scared at the same time – there is good stuff here, but I also don’t want to sell my soul. On the other hand I don’t want other people to take the material and have no one else look at it anymore (in Germany it is not uncommon to “book” material for a dissertation, since they are not funded, so the institution allows exclusive access to someone in exchange for research that that person will do – bad luck for people like us).

First things first: if there is no list of things available, how do yo start looking for stuff? Just reading? Browsing? And then – how do you manage time.. Do you spend a day in the archive? Or a week (that would be me right now) – or months? A year? I decided to do a one week overview mission, and am now just turning to get a sense of what is there (there is no inventory) – I am trying to navigate by biographies, I.e. try to find out who was important around the dates I am interested in and then try to find stuff about those guys. Obviously this makes for neither comprehensive reading nor for precise navigation – but was the only way to start for me…

And what about image management? Do you take pictures of everything? Or just a few things? How do you catalogue those pictures so that you know after you have left what it was that you took pictures of? I Take pictures with my ipad, and create an album for each item/topic right away, so I won’t get too confused. I also try to take a LOT of pictures, but am not sure if that’s the best strategy. I got free 50gb space on a while ago in a promotion, so that’s dedicated to my archival images. Since I don’t have wifi in the archive, I create the albums off line and upload them when at home. I then will try to OCR most of them through devonthink, but that will take a while, so it might be something to do down the line.

Hints, help, or just any comment appreciated – I need some archive aspirin, so to speak.

PS: the upside of a corporate archive is the service that comes with it on other levels: minibar and free coffee. And very nice employees….


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One Comment

  1. Posted June 25, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Your description of the archive sounds marvelous. In my mind a scene from a yet to be written Pynchon novel is taking shape.

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