I spent November starting my new job as a project archivist at the California Historical Society, where I have the honor of working with the Peoples Temple collections. I wrote a blog post there about the 40th anniversary of Jonestown, and about the relationship between archives and poison, which I think is all I have to say about my work at the moment. Instead, I’d like to spend this post talking a little about archives, art, and outreach.
Last week, I went to a preview performance of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia by the Shotgun Players, a theater troupe in Berkeley. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t bother learning anything about the play going in — I just knew that I liked Stoppard, and I liked Shotgun, and their website implied that the play was about the history of science and also involved a good deal of dancing around.
Arcadia did turn out to be about the history of science, but it’s also a very archival play. It’s set in two different timelines — in 1809 and the 1990s — and the modern characters are trying to figure out the story of the historical ones, using archival evidence. More than that, they’re struggling with things archivists struggle with: the meaning of archival gaps and silences, the urge to project and romanticize, the fugitive traces of great events across prosaic letters and books, and the recognition that just because a thing is old, it’s not necessarily valuable or good. I hadn’t expected the play to include any realistic nods to my profession, much less a significant scene where two academics shout at each other while waving documents housed in polyester L-sleeves. It was oddly validating.
It also made me question why archivists struggle so much to explain our work to the rest of the world. After all, a whole audience was sharing this archival saga with me, and they seemed to appreciate it without needing any explanations at all. They could see what the L-sleeves were for; they could recognize what was at stake in the academics’ argument; they understood why a noble family’s habit of keeping Regency hunting logbooks in their bathroom might well lead to a discovery about Lord Byron. They also understood that the play hinged on what was missing from the records, how easy it was to be wrong.
I realized, at this point, that the problem of archival outreach has never been about explaining why archives are important, or how materials should be preserved. These are things that most people can guess. What we need to explain is simply that we exist, that archival labor doesn’t come from nowhere. Arcadia portrays every aspect of archives except for an archivist. Apparently, the two historians popped on those L-sleeves themselves.
This is, I suppose, realistic for two intrepid Romantic scholars combing through a half-empty country house (and stranger things have happened in the UK; that’s how they found that Donne manuscript!). I also don’t think that the play, which was three hours long already, needed another character to get between the two academics and their great questions (whether Lord Byron had visited the house; the identity of the hermit who’d lived on its grounds; whether or not they ought to make out). But I wish that people could imagine archivists as easily as they can imagine archives, and I really do see that as our primary outreach mission: letting people know, not that archives are important, but that archivists are also a part of the drama of history.
(Arcadia runs until January 6th, just as an aside, and if you live in the Bay Area you really ought to go.)