How To Make An Americký Quilt

January 27, 2011

When I was living in the Czech Republic a friend told me a story about installing cabinets in her apartment. The details escape me now (please don’t be disappointed) — I just remember that it was a long and difficult process. One thing did stick with me, however. When the project was complete, she and her boyfriend sat on the couch, admiring the new cabinets, and said, “To je Amerika” (or more closely, „To je America”). Loosely translated: That’s America.

My friend said it was an idiomatic expression used to describe some sort of task or goal that seemed impossibly out of reach but was finally attained. It’s been awhile since that time, and the world has gone through a lot since then, so I’m not sure if this Cold War leftover is still similarly deployed. However, it made a deep impression on me, partly as a surprising statement of faith made to a young Turk of an American all upset at the blah blah blah of the blah blah blah (the words are there but not worth expressing — I hope I have matured somewhat since then), but it also made an impression on me as someone who had spent much time studying US literature and history and struggling with the definition of America. So much effort spent spinning my wheels deeper into the morass of semantics and cultural politics, and here the Czechs had the answer the whole time.

Okay, I’ll cop to being facetiously pat just now, but there is a mote of a true concept in there. In my interactions with international, especially European, colleagues, and in attending panels at various IASA conferences I have noted a greater focus or interest in projects at centralized, national archives or broadcasters. A number of nations have policies of mandatory deposit into state archives, or in some manner are stakeholders in media productions based on arts funding or control of broadcast stations. So, this focus makes sense for them, and the lack of a national focus makes sense for us.

Why? This is no knock on organizations like NARA, Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian — they are some of the most vital institutions we have and absolutely necessary for developing professional standards and guidelines. However, they are still decidedly American in nature, i.e., federally republican, i.e., central authorities with a local influence that ranges from some to let-us-alone, i.e., caught in the eternal conflict of Unity vs. Multiplicity.

I’ll cut to my point here because, despite my obstinate insistence otherwise, I well realize that the majority of my audience (and humanity in general) have little interest in Henry Adams and his theories of history. (Though if you’re curious and a masochist, boy do I have a doozy of a thesis for you to read…)

I’ll also cut to the chase because, well, there is no answer here. I would venture that most practitioners in our field spend a lot of work and free time thinking about how to make archives work better. Not that they are ill-functioning now, but rather the concern is how better to allocate resources or develop methodologies that will help preserve more stuff and provide wider access for as long as possible. This blog post started as a thought experiment pondering the prospects of an archive model similar to those of European states. But the conflict between local and federal responsibilities has littered American history with grumblings, with protests, with riots, with a war… This is not something for the generic parameters of a weblog to overcome (no matter what a brilliant writer I am).

I’ll get down to brass tacks here because, though there are no answers, there are some answers, perhaps even enabled by our mixed bag of a national psyche. From the inside, amidst the processes and obsessions with the details, it is much easier to tease out the faults in a system. Fresh perspective can come from an outside view. If we look back to Tocqueville — again a European that defined America for us — we see that he had a great admiration for the federal/local partnership. From his point of view it was inspirational and spoke to the quality of the American spirit to see local groups or government structures bond together to get things done, whether that be human services, infrastructure, or general community support. The federal structure was there to provide guidance or more when necessary, but “local” institutions and initiative were just as important and vital to society. It is not a top-down structure but a bi-directional system of influence.

With this in mind I feel like it’s absolutely imperative that we (as individuals and as a collective nation) throw our support behind archival and preservation projects working the federal/local, centralized/decentralized partnership, projects like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Archive, a long term effort to preserve and make accessible to the public 40,000 hours (to start) of radio and television material from across the landscape of public broadcasting. This is a visionary plan, not to establish the be-all end-all archive of America, but to provide access to a rich history of material that is both artistic and exemplary of life in the 20th Century. The creation of this archive will show just how integral audiovisual materials have been in shaping our lives, but also how public broadcasting has shaped the development of the broadcast media and our understanding of the world.

Supporting local autonomy and trying to get funding to the lesser-haves is important, but sometimes the infrastructure and guiding vision of a centralized system is necessary. Stations from every US state and territory with a public broadcasting station will be contributing to the American Archive, but in the end it all needs to fit together and follow the same parameters so it is useable by the widest swath of the public possible. We can all experience nationally distributed productions like Austin City Limits and Fresh Air, but the American Archive will also open up those local productions like Oregon Experience or Policy and a Pint that bring new insights from and about this big, complex country we inhabit.

And when the American Archive is up and running, I can look forward to that day when we can sit on our couches, open our laptops, and say, “To je Amerika.”

— Joshua Ranger