February 3, 2010

Interesting article in the New York Times this morning (interesting hmm-that-deserves-some-further-thought, not interesting well-think-of-a-thing-like-that-!) about the legal status of the personal papers belonging to FDR’s former personal secretary, Grace Tully (“Bankruptcy Complicates Deal for Roosevelt Papers“). The donation of the papers to NARA / the Roosevelt Presidential Library has been held up for years in court cases, and now it has been further complicated by the bankruptcy filing of the current possessor of the papers.

This reminded me of the recent story about Billy Name’s archive of photo negatives from his years as the house photographer for Andy Warhol (“In Search of an Archive of Warhol’s Era“). The collection was under the management of a third party for many years, but over the past two years, possibly due to economic issues, the third party became less communicative, the archive inaccessible, and there is a fear that the collection is in someone else’s hands now and may not be recoverable.

We’ve all been aware of the tightening of budgets and funding resources due to the economic downturn, but these situations with the Tully papers and Billy Name’s works have me thinking that there are other kinds of threats to archival collections that will be rippling out for some time from the various financial troubles. This problem of the dumping or loss of works has been an issue before when film labs have gone out of business, but those have been related to the collapse of a certain business model. Recent issues of receivership, bankruptcy, or just financial mismanagement touches a wider range of entities.

I certainly wouldn’t propose not trusting third party management systems, storage vendors, and other businesses. Not every producer or holder of materials has the knowledge, wherewithal, or space to store, maintain, or manage collections, and experts in these areas are necessary to help. I would propose that any life-cycle vendor one is planning on contracting with be thoroughly researched and vetted, and that proper agreements be drawn and insurance considered. Trained archivists are well aware of this need, but perhaps it is something we need to better express to creators, collectors, and the general public. But even for ourselves, perhaps we need to keep reminding ourselves that a holistic preservation strategy involves greater considerations than destination formats and microclimates.

There is a traditional poetic genre that speaks of the poet as parent to a poem, this thing they fret over and nurture until, finally, the poem goes out into the world on its own. It captures the sentiment well and is something I’ve felt about my own creations — once they are done I let them go to take care of themselves and move onto the next thing. However, a work can only “go out” and “make it” in the cultural milieu, it cannot fend for itself physically and maintain itself. The responsibility of caring for the work continues throughout our lives and beyond.

— Joshua Ranger