At the Postmoot Literary Festival at Miami of Ohio in April 2006, one of the conversations focused on libraries and the idea of the archive. Many people felt disturbed that even libraries significantly invested in archiving contemporary literature often didn’t have the resources to preserve significant texts, especially in their original material form as books, pamphlets, distinct art objects. Questions were raised about the implications of turning some or even much of this material into digital material and sacrificing the original object.
As both Borges and Eco have suggested in their fiction, the concept of the absolute archive in which all material can be stored is not only a fantasy but one that has usually been used in the name of controlling information and those who wish access to it.
It’s obvious to say both that material will be lost and that, therefore, it doesn’t do much good to bemoan that loss in any generalized way. The issue becomes more interesting when we imagine that we have some control over what gets saved and what gets lost, or that we’ll have key choices to make in some instances. If it is inevitable that material will be lost, what should be saved? And since even if we could decide what material should be saved, some of that will not be saved, what then?
Unlike in earlier eras of history, it’s now possible to imagine that some things will never get lost.
Which depends, of course, on the time period that we imagine the word “never” can actually span.
Yet it would be easy to be smug about the inevitability of loss. Just last week, a synchronization glitch in my computer system erased these notes from my computer. Furious and disturbed, I drove hurriedly to my office. Luckily this file and several others were backed up on the university computer H drive, and I lost no work. The relief I felt when I realized that the work had been saved! It was the relief that I had gotten back, in my work, to where I already had been. The relief of knowing there was an archive where I could find my own work.
To get back to where you’ve already been seems to me at least as much the promise of the archive as it is to see some essential objects you’ve never yet seen. To see again what you’ve already seen, and perhaps to see it again in a new way. I have seen the James Joyce collection at the University of Buffalo library and if I go back there, the collection will still be there and I can see it. Again.
Unless of course it isn’t there or someone prevents me from seeing it. One can only have so much trust in an archive and those who guard it.