Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Fear and loathing at the local archives

The doors to the Archives:
Abandon Hope all ye who Enter Here

Even before the doors of the Archives are open, we’re all there, stood awkwardly outside with our mini-rucksacks and folders. Some of us appear critically infirm. One or two clearly wish to be considered by the world as characters, and have invested considerable effort in cultivating discreet but assertive eccentricities of dress or manner. Others, oblivious to anything outside the focus of their pet projects, betray in their behaviour that narrowed spatial awareness of the selfish elderly. Nearly all of us have white hair, or no hair at all.

Well, it’s a cheap day out: an oldie’s bus pass takes us from the Park and Ride, and we bring our flasks and a cheese sandwich for a lunchtime break. On the stroke of ten we file in, though we are not at all relaxed about it; there is an edginess in the air, a concealed, competitive panic in our movements as we claim our lockers, sign the sheet and jostle politely to book in with the archivist at the counter. This politeness is the tense, superficial, survivalist formality of a dying person sucking milk through a straw. Our urgency is the hurry of mortality; few of us seem much under seventy five, and we are single-mindedly anxious to pin down definitively our family histories before we ourselves become just another small part of them. We need to know who we are, before we become no one. And when the last ancestor is pinned to the tree, then we may close our eyes and sleep beneath it, as we deserve. Not that I am here to research my own genealogy, which puts me in a clear minority in this company. (As a matter of fact, I am studying the local military history of the period of the Napoleonic wars, though that is beside the point, and unlikely to interest you.)

On my way to the secure door of the reading room, I peel off a number of my fellow researchers who, with practised urgency, hunch down busily over microfilm readers, winding on their chosen reels with clear desperation. They peer over their glasses at the screens, eyes narrowed and teeth bared in rictus sneers of concentration. Already, a couple of them have accosted the archivist, whom they attempt to involve in the dead ends of their researches into the dead, concerning which they provide unnecessarily lengthy detail. The job of an archivist is demanding; listening skills are clearly a key qualification. The aged speechifiers do not seek solutions, though. Rather, they demand affirmation, a sign of solidarity, an indication that a fellow human being may be properly interested in the minutiae that have overwhelmed their own diminishing attention span.

In the reading room I claim my pre-ordered documents, and sharpen a pencil while the assistant unboxes them. When they arrive, it appears that there is a problem. As this deposit has never been fully catalogued, its numbers refer to bundles rather than to individual documents, and some of the bundles bear no numbers. The archivist and I try unsuccessfully to reconcile the unidentified bundles with the leather bound typescript catalogue that is supposed to reference them. I sense that I also am beginning to speechify, so I compromise graciously, and forego some bundles, which in any case appear to be worryingly fragile. The archivist is nervous about material like this being issued to tables. I suspect that she would prefer to ensure its preservation at all costs, even if this means that no-one ever reads it. Ever. But what if one of the untouchable bundles contains evidence that is key to my lines of enquiry?

Ancestral angst in the reading room

And the relation between those lines is problematic. It all begins with the catalogue system, and that is not coherent. A new searchable database does exist, but there is much material that it does not yet contain, and may never catch up with. Beyond that we must have recourse to the long shelves of old bound volumes, into which, between the wars, anaemic and bespectacled clerks attempted to list in numerical order the essentials of many thousands of pieces of faded paper, most of which have never been scrutinised since. These volumes are neither uniform nor consistent in their organisation or purpose, and there are suspicious gaps in their coverage. So where is the catalogue of catalogues, the meta-catalogue? There have been several attempts to compile over-arching subject indices, but these were sketchy at the time of their compilation, and have been made inadequate by the arrival of new acquisitions. There is, it seems, no central comprehensive overview, no catalogue of the catalogues of catalogues.

In the volume I am attempting to use, a well thumbed slip, pasted onto the first page, offers a Gestetnered apology for chaos:

“This actual collection was deposited in several stages. Some basic sorting had been undertaken in advance of deposit and this process was initially continued after the material arrived. The listing and indexing of some sections was also begun while additional records were also received, some of the latter actually relating to the sections already listed. These factors have inhibited a comprehensive sort of the collection and its archival arrangement.”

I chew at my pencil, haunted by the suspicion that at unknown intervals in the locked vaults may be entombed richly illuminating jewels of information, unobtainable anywhere else, but unlisted or misidentified, and so forever beyond access. My study may never be complete. The notion of completeness is always an ideal that withdraws, like a doorway in a dream. I know that. And it seems that, once again, I will have to downgrade. But at what point does my “complete” plunge so far that it falls into absolute incompleteness, and becomes worthless?

And in any case, what am I eventually going to do with all these accumulated pads of scribbled notes? I haven’t quite decided. In my more aspirational moments I imagine that I will complete a substantial and definitive volume, exhaustively footnoted and handsomely illustrated. Self-published at considerable expense, admittedly, but at least I will proudly present copies to a delegation of grateful local historians, and my name will be immortalised on Google.

Right now I need to make a decision about which bundle of crumbling papers to ask for next, but the archivist seems to have slipped out for coffee, and her assistant has been engaged by an elderly man sporting a lifelong collection of lapel badges, a single bicycle clip and a fresh spot of morning toothpaste on his chin, who is in full flow with regard to the vexed issue of copyright on a  photograph of a demolished fire station.

Let’s face it – this isn’t going to happen.

[From 101 Unrealised Projects, a stubbornly incomplete work in suspended progress.]

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