On the Importance of Personal Archives

A common thread in literature on personal archives is the use of these archives as memory aids. Two cases highlight this fact. One by Paul Ashmore et al. in Working With: Talking and Sorting in Personal Archives, and another by Jennifer Douglas in The Archiving “I”: A Closer Look in the Archives of Writers. In both the cases of Derek Ingram, a journalist and political commentator, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, renowned author of Anne of Green Gables, their personal archives were active sources of referral that led to the creation of new stories. In other words, their archives were frequently being recontextualized and reconstituted. Personal archives, when used, can be remade and reshaped in this way in many forms. Examples of these forms are ongoing diary entries, autobiographies, or even personal discussions through the social transactions of “working-with” domestic collections and donors. As such, personal archives are dynamic collections which take on many meanings and significations. The active fostering of a personal archive enhances memory rather than detracts from it, like when shapers of archives describe collections autonomously, without the support of donors and the subsequent sociality of the archive.

The tragedy of traditional archives is that, in many cases, archivists are not involved in building collections. Sure, they may be responsible for appraising some collections – and archivists are certainly responsible when it comes to making archives accessible to the public – but the initial decision to bring collections into an archive often lies with people with political clout; regents presidents, executive board members, etc. etc. With personal archives and archivists working-with donors, there is no longer this great cold distance between archivists and the material, where you have superiors telling you what is important and what is not important for an archival collection. The Working-With model for appraisal as outlined by Ashmore et al. thrusts archivists into active and affective/emotional roles. In other words, archivists are intimately involved in every step of the way when they are working with personal archives. Archives are imbued with stories from their creators, and when archivists have the opportunity to share in the relating of these stories, there is an emotional impact on the archives which can reverberate down through the ages.

Personal archives also subvert the traditional power relationships inherent in archival practice. The personal nature of diaries and letters, as shown by Douglas, allow the creators to wield representational power. For instance, diary writing can be constructed from the perspective of the historical “I” or the narrated “I.” When constructed from the narrated “I,” personal archiving for individuals with some claim to fame is a way and a means of controlling public perceptions of themselves when their archives are solicited for research. In this sense, personal archives can be disingenuous and contrived, because partial evidence is not always accurate evidence. But even if the donor is genuine, honest, and not given to any delusions of their own selfhood, their personal archives are still within their power to retain or destroy.

While the above concern regarding partiality has historically kept personal papers out of archives in favor of government or organizational records, the postmodern turn has given consideration to personal archives. Riva A. Pollard most convincingly demonstrates the value of personal archives and how they can be arranged and described in The Appraisal of Personal Papers: A Critical Literature Review. It seems that there is a greater effort to include personal archives in collections based on the information that is constituted in these personal archives, and how they accord with the collection policies of individual repositories and greater societal values. During the appraisal process, archivists help to bring in collections that have certain influences on what the collection can mean. Pollard cites Timothy Ericson, who mentions that the information constituted by the materials in a personal archive is more important than the record itself. I took this to mean that the decision to appraise personal archives should hinge on the intellectual content within given materials of a personal archive, and not on the reputation or influence of the record creator.

This is a difficult task though because, historically, when archivists have appraised personal archives, they have been arranged in terms of the oeuvre of the individual (think personal papers and manuscript collections). In terms of literary figures, we have whole collections suitably arranged based solely on the person (i.e. the Virginia Woolf Collection; the Montgomery Collection, etc. etc.). I guess this still kind of makes sense when one is dealing with national, famous figures. But I think the Ashmore et. al. paper signified that personal archives belonging to more “common” people, like a Derek Ingram, can still be relevant culturally and historically based on their content. The information constituted in a personal archive can be linked intellectually to other archives and shown to have wider cultural associations. How? Through the help of archivists working-with donors of personal collections. This is why I think personal archives can enhance social memory as well.

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