The Archivists

The university archivists came by today to Cancer Bitch Central, toting a box containing flat pre-boxes, plus a luggage cart. They filled up one and a half gray acid-free boxes, made from a flat pre-boxes. They took papers I wrote in college, syllabi from my college years and from my teaching (at the same place--Well-Regarded University), some photographs (of a campus landmark, of a tiny park that's now a fancily landscaped), satirical newspapers created by summer high school students on campus. It seems almost comical, these two guys ringing the bell and going through my papers. Taking what could be junk and treating it well. Or else it seems sinister. (I read too many accounts of Nazi soldiers coming into people's houses and rifling through belongings.) But I brought the archivists' visit on myself. L and I are thinking of moving, are moving toward moving, and I am a packrat, and I have trouble throwing things away. I will pay $7 to send a box of taped interviews and papers to strangers (at the Tamiment Library, something I did earlier this year) but I cannot not throw out the same material, for free. The university archive (at Well-Regarded University) is always emailing its faculty, reminding us to save and send for posterity. (Motto: When in doubt, don't throw it out.) So that is why I emailed them, offering my wares. I also offered my personal writerly papers, but the archives said I wasn't famous enough (said this nicely, of course, talking about limited space, etc., etc.). I felt some regret at letting my coursework go, but I can visit it whenever I want, during business hours. At least I can visit once the stuff is catalogued, and I can speed up that process by writing a bio and sending it in. The archivist told me to look at bios on its site for models. I have and I see that there was a prof who tried to enter Tibet in 1922. After being turned away, he sneaked in, dressed as a "Tibetan coolie," and then wrote a book, To Lhasa in Disguise. He is represented by five boxes of goods at the archives. As I read the bios of the other donors, I feel pretentious. There's no one else as young as I am, and I'm not young. I also had cancer and have a pre-cancerous blood disease. Part of my motivation is the possible imminence of my demise. I think: This will be one less task for L. Though it's just the tip. I still have six four-drawer file cabinets in my office at home. The archivists took just about half a file drawer plus a slice from a box of college stuff. I have files and files of journal entries and accounts of my dreams (boring; but after toting them around for 30 years, I'm loath to throw them out) and letters and even faxes. I have my bat mitzvah speech and notes my friends passed to me in 7th grade, and comic strips I drew featuring talking French pastry, and research on the Weimar Republic, back when you had to go through everything so painstakingly via newspaper indices and microfilm and -fiche.

My work will help future researchers who want to write on the history of journalism and liberal arts education. My papers will be catalogued and tucked away, not too far from the Leopold-Loeb ransom note and other treasures.

Some day soon I will go through the letters in my file cabinets, and, yes, the dreams, with the purpose of winnowing. I didn't give the archivists copies of two papers--the one on Weimar and one on Salome in fin-de-siecle art and thought, though I did hand over all the other research papers as well as my journalism papers. I like the idea of my papers living beyond me, even though some of them are embarrassing (dumb title; stupid mistakes; bad grade). When I was in graduate school, we were told that copies of all the stories and poems we workshopped were sent automatically to the university archive, the idea being that at least some of our peers would become famous. When I took an NEH seminar on biography, we often talked about the surfeit of information. The problem of the future, we said, will be that surplus--too many documents, too many photos, too many home videos. How will researchers be able to sift through and weigh? What will our family members, not yet born, appreciate having and what would they rather not be bothered with?