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Horizontal Histories and Learning from the Archive

As a medievalist, I’ve had the great and unusual privilege of spending a fair bit of time in manuscripts rooms handling 600-year-old handwritten books. I fell in love with medieval studies during my undergrad due to a funded summer at the University of Calgary when I was asked to help catalogue and investigate over thirty manuscripts preserved on microfilm. I then spent a summer of my MA in England, bypassing the microfilm for actual old papers and books, and this semester I get to do it again: temporarily excused from teaching responsibilities, I’m currently hanging out in the UK for a few weeks to conduct primary research for my dissertation. It’s….stressful (am I looking at the right things, from the right perspective, for the right amount of time?). It’s tiring (must-get-there-when-library-opens-must-stay-until-close). It’s a little lonely (Oh hello, girl in the white blouse. I sat across from you yesterday. Let’s be pretend friends in my mind.).

But it’s also invigorating and exciting, especially insofar as I’m encountering traces of people and bodies that have been forgotten for centuries, and as I practice a history that is reconstructive and “recombinative”–as Nicholas Watson terms it. Watson argues that we as literary historians are charged with forming a relationship with the past, of confronting its phantasms in the present and combating the teleological impulse to privilege the future of modernity over the historically premodern (and the Middle Ages especially is viewed as decayed and obsolete, remnants of a vicious and irrational time) (7). If we think horizontally rather than teleologically, we can learn to listen to what traces of the past have to teach us in the present, thus countering productivist or evolutionary dogma about the future, as well as the “climate of the obvious” that demands we translate our humanist work into metrical and instrumental terms (an issue I wrote about a few weeks ago).

On a more basic level, the archive has retaught me about the value of the book, and I’m not just talking about the medieval book. One setback of this digital age, with all its conveniences and technological marvels, is that the many scholarly materials readily available on the internet foster inattentive attitudes over the means of their production. As an example, I’ve been consulting the British Library’s online catalogue version of one of my manuscripts prior to this trip, and when I located the physical catalogue in the BL Manuscripts room, I discovered that not only this single tome, but also all twenty volumes of the early-twentieth-century Sloane catalogue are handwritten. There were no digital traces of this fact. (Of course all the texts I deal with as a medievalist were originally handwritten, scrawled and deliberated over by poor monks in harsh working conditions with deadlines and demands.)

 Court in front of ye grande British Library

Everything at the British Library is ritualized and formalized, and the conversations overheard at tea time are most often serious, engaged, passionate. When sitting in the reading room, even with a modern book, I often have to suppress a strong impulse to snap a photo with my phone of a particularly useful piece of scholarship, due to the BL’s draconian photography restrictions–instead I  type it out, forcing me to slow down and more consciously ruminate on the information provided. Even the daily ritual of opening my laptop case for the security guards as I leave the reading room serves as a reminder of the precious nature of physical archival materials. Erin has written about the systematic destruction of Canadian archives under the Stephen Harper regime; I dare you, Harper, to step foot in the BL and experience firsthand their protective stewardship of primary documents.

While I don’t at all mean to romanticize books, spurn digital humanities (which have been valuable for scholarship in SO many ways), or fortify the privileged domain of the ivory tower, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the value of the humanities lately–as many of us have in this uncertain world–and I think the materials and products upon which our scholarly output is based deserve more attention than they’re normally given. We should also question modes of access to and policing of these materials, and so fight for increased value allotted to primary documents alongside increased visibility and access (which the digital movement has greatly aided). Back home in New York, I’ve tried to be active in the SaveNYPL movement, which is working to prevent the city from incurring irreparable architectural damage to the largest noncirculating library branch in America, and demolishing one of the States’ most frequently used libraries, the Mid-Manhattan Branch, in the process. This is a fight not just for architectural preservation, but also against letting information circulation accelerate beyond a point where we recall the value of slow, conscientious, recombinative scholarship as fostered by noncirculating libraries. The NYPL stands to become what one activist has called a “glorified internet cafe,” and I hope some of you will join me in emailing the mayor to help protest these devastating changes.

So I guess we could all benefit from living for a few days or hours as medieval monks. And what about you, dear readers? What have you learned from working in archives and libraries, from digging through the past? How do you negotiate your own slow scholarship in the midst of the rapid flow of this digital age?

Works Cited
Watson, Nicholas. “The Phantasmal Past: Time, History, and the Recombinative Imagination.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 32 (2010): 1-37.