The Optimism of the Archive

An archive can be – is – many things. An archive is a concept, a metaphor enabling us to think of fragments, loosely affiliated objects, and tangential documents as related to one another. It is also a term used to refer to a storage site or repository–be that material or digital. Institutions as diverse as museums, libraries, and digital databases are considered archives. An archive is a place devoted to collecting documents, distinct from a museum (which can house a large variety of objects in addition to texts) or a library (which focuses on circulating books and other published materials). Whether the product of a single person or by constructed by a group, the archive suggests, through its organizational structure, an attempt at unity. Each archive attempts to anticipate an audience, yet in its acts of gathering it must remove the very objects it wishes to preserve from circulation, an act that, in effect, limits the object’s future audience to those able to access the archive. Still, imperfect as the gesture is, its value is real and ranges from the maintenance of national history (the Smithsonian, for example) to entertainment (a community library’s dvd collection) to future use, only to be anticipated, such as the seed bank in Norway’s Svalbard or the golden records aboard Voyager. The seed bank and the golden records indicate two opposing yet compatible visions of the archive: one in anticipation of environmental catastrophe, the other in the expectation that launching a bottle into “the blue cosmic ocean,” as Carl Sagan writes, “says something very hopeful about life on this planet” ( Whatever the purpose, archives are valuable, practical tools, varying in scope and material, gathered and maintained for anyone with the inclination and opportunity to use them. The past is our present. Sometimes archives help us rediscover what might otherwise have been lost. Gaps in knowledge come from deliberate human agendas. History is a constructed narrative, a sorting of events according to a moral analysis or to notions of teleology and it is therefore always a limited account. For example, if we only have records from the victors of a war, we can only ever know half the experiences of war (if we can even imagine war has any victors). But the artifact––be that a lab book, a diary, a photograph, a textile or a sound recording, links the present to the past and enables the archivist to unearth, rework, and rewrite historical narrative. History is power. The histories of individuals and groups – especially minority groups – can be transformed through narratives designed to favor some interests and not others. Too often are the pasts of these people swept into obscurity; archives devoted to their history can bring it back, giving a sense of place and of belonging in a world that failed to recognize their contributions. In the case of the Ringling Library, the archive of John Ringling’s personal books provides an opportunity to explore the material traces of his reading. The objects can never fully disclose John Ringling. He will always remain outside of and beyond the objects he possessed. But they conjure otherwise intangible specters of one person’s engagement with the material and intellectual culture of the early twentieth century. Marginalia, book plates, creased pages, and faded spines can tell us much about how and why a book was read, and where it was stored (and thus what value it held for its owner). Some books are gifts, others are casually acquired, others, like Ringling’s facsimile Gutenberg Bible, represent prestige acquisitions. Examining his library we can restore a bit of his personality and taste, retained in his belongings. Ringling was wealthy and he knowingly created a massive visual arts collection, knowing that it would preserve his name, long past his death. But there can be archives that are seemingly less significant and more personal in form. Social media accounts, diaries or journals, and communications between friends are all forms of archivization. These daily archives hold the same value as archives at larger institutions like the Library of Congress or the Bibliothèque Nationale. Put simply, an archive is a repository of the past, whatever form that may take. Archives can retain the past, preserving treasures and junk alike so that today and tomorrow our present will be more pliable to better understandings of human history and more welcoming to better ways of living. Margaret Konkol & Amber Standridge


Book illustration: why illustrated literature? (By Stetson Cooper)

Whenever the concept of illustrated literature is on the mind, the first things I think about are all of the storybooks I read as a child. There was Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Besty Lewin, which depicts a group of farm animals learning to use a typewriter to demand better treatment from their farmer. Another one of my favorites was Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, where the text of the book describes a path the chicken Rosie is walking, whereas the illustrations accompanying the descriptions shows a fox trying, and failing, to hunt her along the way. When children’s books are illustrated, it’s done in a way to establish setting, plot, and to allow the child’s mind easier travel into the world the author is creating. However, our attribution of illustrations almost exclusively to children’s books is a recent phenomenon. Illustrations to accompany literature started as hand-drawn illuminations of scholarly texts (mostly bibles and biblical stories), which advanced into wood-cut illustrations after the invention of the printing press. In the 19th century, illustrations were treated as a delight of the page, typically pressed into a book using nickel or metal based ink. Once the new technology enabling illustrations was available, they were a commercial commodity.

In the early to mid 20th century in the United States, illustrations were popularized by the expansion and development of popular media, including comic strips and advertisements in the forms of posters and billboards. As illustrations became important in new media, society’s reaction to their inclusion in books was more passive. Their inclusion and arrangement in books became more stylized and and added to the personality of the books they resided in, rather than expanding on or aiding the text the book was describing. Illustrations, while still being created for the direct purpose of a text, also were used to aid in the creation of the aesthetic of the entire work as a whole.

In my discussion of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, two differing illustrations were examined in two different editions of the book by the Thomas Y. Crowell company, one being printed in 1943 (left) and the other in 1950 (right):

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In each printing of both books, this image is the first thing seen by the reader. The 1943 printing shows a crumpled woman bound by thorns, face obstructed, unable to play her music. The 1950 image is exactly where the prior illustration is placed in its edition, however the contrast is drastic: her hair is smoothed, round, and out of her face, a simple style typical of women in the turn of the decade. Both illustrations were drawn by Willy Pogany, both have the same central image of the woman and the guitar, but why are there so many intense changes? One explanation can be found in the historical contexts of the printings: 1950 was the beginning of a prosperous era for the United States in the face of the global aftermath of World War II, and the significant changes made in the second illustration is evident of this; the woman is upright, drawn with a pleasant face, loosely holding the guitar and looking upward. It is a much more simple, toned down version of its predecessor as a result of its placement in history. The editors of the collection felt that, in this period of prosperity, a book of love sonnets should be made prettier and daintier to appeal to the public. The fact that these images are the first illustrations seen before entering the content of each book attributes to their ability to create the book’s holistic aesthetic.

What is an archive?

What is an archive? A collection of things? A gathering of objects? What purpose does it serve? For who, for what? The archive, as modern definitions might imply, is a storehouse of material and/or immaterial goods. A litany for and not against its institutional or individual bearer, the archive speaks through its collected documents. Books, newspaper articles, artwork, photographs, brochures, recordings, oral histories, biographies detailing its progenitors, financial records, etc.. The archive is representative of a concept, as archived by the archivist, institutional identity, or individual responsible for describing and cataloguing its contents. This is the archontic power, through consignation as Derrida defines it, “the act of consigning through gathering together signs […] coordinate[s] a single corpus, a system or synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration” (2). This configuration is the structure of the archive. Unity, its representative exterior. The impression that the archive leaves on us is the message that it articulates.

The archive speaks through its signs. Its collection of materials, representative of the identity that it stands in for. In the case of the Ringling estate, each constituent part represents the whole. From the Ca’d’Zan to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to the Ringling Library, these parts are indicative of a larger image. Each one enclosing a piece of the archive. The Ca’d’Zan contains an imprint of John and Mable’s summer home, enclosing their furniture, decor, clothes, beds, miscellaneous baubles, John’s ties, etc.. Their lives. The museum contains their tastes, great paintings and sculptures of the renaissance with their rich oils and gilded frames. Last, the library contains thousands of volumes of book and other printed materials, vast information relating pieces of the archive’s mission as described by its bearer. The archive contains a legacy. A history, an identity. A collection of signs unified by their enclosement, their gathering together. Parts speak through the whole, speaking through the archive.

-Corey Culbertson


Works Consulted

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996. Print.

What is a network?

A major facet of the archive is the way its contents interact with each other. This evokes a familiar word: the network. The network has the tinge of a corporate term, and just so, as the corporate approach is very much characterized by the archiving principle, that of control. In the modern world, much of the functions of society are concerned with understanding how people, things, and events interact with each other, and how they will effect subjects of interest. It is always in the advantage to reduce the network to one as simple as possible so that we may comprehend what we are seeing, unlike the vast complexity of networking we see in nature, and what makes it seemingly impossible to forecast meteorological or geological events to certain degrees of accuracy. The network, for human purposes, is a controlled network, one that can be recalled by thought, paper, or computer. The network is enabled by the archive, and the history of the archived, most importantly. The method in which a cover is binded to paper, or the city in which a book is published, and any other factors that you can imagine, tie together individual artifacts to each other, separate some from others, and brings the collection in contact with the outside world. Networking is always interdimensional; from one book to the other, from one library to the other, from one system to the other, from one time to the other, ect. In some ways, this is where we get the pleasure from collecting, and how the archive becomes further useful to us. We master the collection in terms of its past, present, and future; our control of it is complete in this way, as if its entire being becomes the possession of the archiver. The collection becomes a microcosm in the eye of the beholder, and from the height of stewardship, we can see the interrelationships between objects like a god over the laws of nature. The network elaborates the purpose of the archive. It makes clear what the archiver is looking at and its significance, and exemplifies its existence.

-Joseph Estevez