Tuesday, October 1, 2013

For The Love Of Archives

On a night out last month, I was on my way to a R. Buckminster Fuller documentary at the Detroit Institute of Arts when my friend asked me, "why do we need libraries and librarians when everything is online?" I hardly had a moment to answer because the documentary was about to start, but I did rattle something off about the slow process of digitization and the need to organize the world's information.

Then something magical happened. During the beginning of the documentary, the narrator went into great detail about his visit to the Dymaxion Chronofile. "The Dymaxion Chronofile is Buckminster Fuller's attempt to document his life as completely as possible. He created a very large scrapbook in which he documented his life every 15 minutes from 1920 to 1983. The total collection is estimated to be 270 feet (80 m) worth of paper. This is said to be the most documented human life in history." And the very reason that we still have this wonderful piece of recorded human history is because of the Stanford University Libraries Archives.

Some of the material in the Dymaxion Chronofile has been digitized, but the vastness of this collection means that, in all likelihood, it may never all be digitized. It was an obvious answer (to me) about the continuing need for libraries and librarians in the digital age. If we do not preserve our historical materials, we may have a pre- and post-Internet research and scholarship age.

After the documentary and this interaction with my friend, I came across an article on InsideHigherEd about the joy of archival research. As one writer put it, "it is defined by rules, habits, worries (especially with fragile documents), and a kind of ambient awkwardness. The historian learns to frame questions that the archive knows how to answer – while remaining open to the secrets and surprises to be found in the boxes of paper that haven’t been delivered to her desk yet."

It sounds lovely. Now, what research question can I ask that the archives will answer? TBD.

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