Archiving is a spooky job. The Barnard Archives are located in a windowless basement room of the college library, where the air is still and the temperature dial is twisted past cold and into the “tomb” register. The collection is housed on sliding shelves that could easily crush a careless researcher; visitors to the stacks are followed by the eyes of a couple of 17th century Dutch portraits; an imposing iron bust of Virginia Gildersleeve blankly gapes into the main work-room, as if vowing to one day fall and brain an irreverent student worker; and recently my bosses spent an hour in a dirty underground vault that looked more likely to house un-dead students from years past than the works of art they were tasked with cataloging.
Archivists preserve personal objects and papers, bolstering physical ephemera–and the personalities they belonged to–against the long fade from collective memory to dust. The subjects’ spirits rest, not in the ground, but in their relics, and the dialogue created between researcher and relic in the archives grants the subject a second kind of life. In Henry James’ “Aspern Papers,” the unnamed narrator embarks on a morally dubious quest to procure the personal papers of the deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern from his ex-lover; he believes that by reading Aspern’s private documents and letters, he will have a more developed understand of and become closer to the poet. Archivists are favored with the opportunity to come as close as possible to understanding the long-dead without actually knowing them. We familiarize ourselves with their writing styles, values, and personalities while reading their letters, temporarily become their contemporaries while reading newspaper clippings, and unravel their thought processes and analytical styles while pouring over their annotated manuscripts. Each archival subject–though confined to a shadowy stasis by the selected materials housed in document boxes–becomes almost alive for the archivist during the familiarization that occurs during the conservation process. I imagine the sliding shelves of our archival room as overcrowded tenement buildings. Down here, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Duer Miller live kitty-corner, and ladies from the American Woman’s Association lift up their skirts and step delicately around circles of student activists, still staging their sit-ins long past the academic protests of 1968.
We recently began processing the explorer/writer Jeannette Mirsky’s collection of maps, personal correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs. Archivists want to neaten, logically arrange, and condense material, and this impulse also leads us to (unintentionally) invade the privacy of, judge, and reprimand a dead woman: we deem her storage practices dubious, trash certain fragments that were important to her, and eagerly read tender, private letters from her ex-lovers. It’s good that we don’t actually summon spirits in the course of our work–how dreadful to be confronted by a screaming suffragette skeleton every-time you throw out a crumbling envelope!
Happy Halloween from the paranormally inclined Barnard archivists!
Barnard/library related Links of Terror for thrill-seekers:
- Classic “Ghostbusters” clip set in the Butler Stacks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYjFKsJjCP0
- List of haunted libraries in the Northeast: http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/10/library-ghosts-northeastern-us/
- PDF of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s unsettling “The Yellow Wallpaper,” criticizing the characterization of women as hysterical and their treatment in asylums: http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/yellowwallpaper.pdf
–Johana Godfrey, BC ’13