In Defense Of Unemotional Archiving

March 14, 2013

When I found the joys of second hand shopping in high school it was a godsend to an oddbird in a smalltown. The act of discovery and its cheapness at that point (Huck Finn and a novelization of Saturday Night Fever for a nickel? Yes, thank you!) fueled a desire to search for something, a desire that was not well funded, to say the least. Finding those treasures pre-Internet felt special; that I could walk away with Herb Alpert, Dark Side of the Moon, Faulkner, Vonnegut, and a pair of plaid pants for under 10 bucks made me feel like I had a place in the world.

Once I was well into the game, however, I began to notice an odd reaction. Whenever I would find an album or book that I particularly liked but already owned, I felt a wave of pleasure that made me want to buy that item again. “Oh, that’s so good,” I thought, “I should snag that up.” In essence, it became less and less about the content and more and more about the high of discovery and purchase.

Luckily I was never that mentally unbalanced that I actually did stock up on duplicate copies, but that urge disturbed me. What if I had not had the self control to stop and just acquired whatever made me feel good?

Either out of lack of money or a move to cities where thrift stores were overpriced and picked over, I stopped that behavior and that kind of consumerism. Whatever the case, I saw it as an issue that I felt I needed to monitor, well before getting into the archival field.

On a personal level, I was concerned with the over-estimation of the value of the object — both aesthetic and monetary. A recent post at the AV Club covers similar territory, discussing a danger in fetishizing vinyl albums, specifically, and I too have written about the problem of the totemic object and archivesIt seems fairly uncontroversial to me to say that aestheticism, nostalgia, and enslavement to process easily cloud the mind and inhibit pragmatic decision making.

The problem is, of course, that archives generally have to think on the institutional level. Decisions need to be made on large sets of materials and are impacted/influenced by various considerations around budgets, strategies, institutional priorities, and institutional politics. But the problem with this is the content of archives can often be very personal, personal in nature and of personal importance to caretakers, researchers, and users. As many people have pointed out, there is great power in the emotional connection to that content and potential advocacy in harnessing that emotional connection. However there is a conflict between that personal, emotional connection and the necessary dispassion of certain collection management decisions.

I would agree that, yes, there is a benefit in utilizing or promoting the emotional connect we have with history and historical materials. However from my point of view that is a limited benefit. Without continued prompting, emotions fade. Quickly. This is why public broadcasting, charities, museums, universities, etc. seem to be in constant outreach mode.

Not only do emotions fade, but so does their efficacy. I think of this as the Fallacy of the Big Bird Argument. I remember that it used to be that when public broadcasting was under fire they would trot Big Bird or Elmo or someone over to Congress to testify and the news would be full of stories about how it would be heartless to take Sesame Street from our children. At some point that seemed to stop happening, I suspect because at some point that refrain became empty, some mix of crying wolf and people becoming inured to the repetition.

Another issue I see is that there is limited follow through on emotional arguments. It’s very easy to get people to agree that preservation (or whatever) is important, but to get people to do something about it is a different story. In some cases this is a social issue — the degree to which people believe they should donate, volunteer, etc. — but in other cases it is because administrators, foundations, and granting agencies want harder arguments — dollars, timelines, outcomes — if they are going to get behind a project. The emotional argument is a stepping stone, a foot in the door, but it is not the endgame.

There are also two concerns here I have with how we use and talk about collections. First, especially as an audiovisual archivist, I am extremely wary about how people use sound and images to generate or project emotions onto content that abuses the integrity of the original. This may occur by reading emotion or context into an image that is false, or through something like the Kuleshov Effect. This theory states that through juxtaposition you can create false emotion, one famous example being Hitchcock’s discussion on showing an old man staring and cutting to an image of a baby versus cutting to a woman in a bikini and how that gives the viewer a different sense of what the man is thinking.

My other concern is the prevalence of the urge or advice to Tell Your Story, either by utilizing archival materials or, for archivists, talking about their collection as a form of advocacy. I’m not against story telling (otherwise I wouldn’t blog like this) but I fear the over reliance on this strategy and the over creation / over estimation of stories and their efficacy in the larger world. My original educational background is actually in early American literature — specifically the period before photography and before the writing got good. Poe, Hawthorne, and (regrettably) Fennimore Cooper are merely pretenders. This means I studied almost entirely personal narrative. Captivity narratives, conversion narratives, spiritual narratives, slave narratives, discovery narratives, epistolaries, etc… There was a ton of it being written back then, each with the idea that their story would instruct and inform others. I had very few friends to discuss these readings with because, honestly, most people hate that writing. And honestly, most of it was not very good. The pleasure was not in the story, but mostly in the history of why and how it was written and where that intersected with what was going on in the larger world.

Ultimately, I suppose, my final arguments are personal, emotional reactions to archival materials and how they are used.


Can I start over?

—¬†Joshua Ranger