West and Grand

How to Save a Life: Preventing the Forgotten Century

When I was in college, back in the last millennium, I had a student job that carried a title I found so deeply pleasurable that I still use it. I was an archivist. Now that I look at the word I realize I was an “ark-ivist,” which explains the obsession with Indiana Jones. Archiving was custom made for me, since it required me to do one thing very well: save things.

Archiving is not hoarding, no matter how deranged the occupation looks. Sometimes, however, in pursuit of historical gold we were required us to go through the belongings of hoarders. These were no ordinary hoarders. They were important in some way, and the dusty, incoherent cartons of debris that fetched up at the library were actually the result of long wooing and negotiations by the Manuscript Division of the Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus.

There was an Area 51 quality to the place. We worked underground, away from light and dust, silently sifting through bags and boxes of paper. In fact, our full-time assignment was to looking for pieces of paper. Very, very important pieces of paper. What made these documents and artifacts special was that there was only one.

The most exciting discoveries were the pieces of paper bearing handwriting.  Onto this page an author or person of historical significance had pressed ink or pencil with his or her own hand. When we found these we took a moment to marvel. While working on the collected papers of William Saroyan I marveled most at a thank-note note sent to him by Elizabeth Taylor. It wasn’t all Hemingway and Kerouac.

In that hand the writer had recorded a thought, momentary and perhaps eventually discarded, amending a draft of a story or novel, writing a letter, entering a troubling dream into a diary. The thought was there, and then it wasn’t. But we know what it was because it was written down, and saved. The page had captured the fleeting nature of thought, and therefore of time.

Our task was to save each note, each successive manuscript or typescript, draft after draft, gently wiping off any dirt or mold with a fresh piece of cheesecloth. Once the paper was clean we would delicately, I would even say lovingly, wrap it in acid-free paper, to prevent yellowing and decay, clip it where necessary with a stainless steel paperclip, always with a thin sheet of acid free tissue paper between the clip and the page, and slip it into a coded folder. It was paper on paper on paper, but rather than wasteful the endeavor was one of conservation. This was paper with purpose, using resources to preserve other resources. (My fellow manuscript processors and I were not supposed to talk. To communicate, we passed notes. More paper.)

For me, it was among the most pleasurable work of my life, and here’s why. We were saving the external evidence of the thoughts of those who had gone before us. Those predecessors were writers, and sometimes they were the people who created the institutions on which we still depend. The direct beneficiaries would be the scholars whose work is founded on original source material. Researchers came from all over the world to examine in person these real things.

The real things had been authenticated, catalogued, and stored in conditions designed for the maximum comfort of paper, which happen to be the same conditions that are of maximum comfort to people. Not too hot, not too cold, not too humid or too dry, with limited exposure to harsh sunlight. Years later, when I became a seller of rare books, people would ask, “How should I keep my books?” Our answer, “If you feel good, the books feel good.”

Books are not only like us. Books pretty much are us. So, this begs the possibility that books and people share a common destiny. Here in the digital age, there is concern that this could become a “Forgotten Century.” The term is being thrown around, and it’s easy to see how this could happen. Letters became e-mails, photos are sent through the ether. Neither are printed out and saved in boxes, tied with ribbons, the way they once were. Where, really, are they, our memories and artifacts? Memory is fallible and so is digital storage.

What always impressed me in the library archive, and in my own vast personal archive, carried across countries, seas, and continents, is how durable pieces of paper can be. Fragile, too, as the closet full of archival-grade office supplies attested, and let’s not even talk about the priceless collections destroyed by fire and water, the most famous being the Alexandria Library in Egypt around 40 B.C., which now serves as an object lesson in cultural erasure far more lasting that the papyrus scrolls that were stored in it. Even so, many, many objects survive.

Or, they used to. They survived because they existed in the first place.

I have saved every letter, every photo, journals going back to junior high—totally epic, obviously. Collected are college class notes, essays typed on onion-skin paper (onion skin!), birthday cards, newspaper clippings, magazines of note, bearing witness to a mania for Star Wars. You don’t want to lose the Star Wars archive. I also still have the hand-written note from Helen Stark, the librarian at The New Yorker, informing me in genteel tones that I had not been selected for the position of library assistant. It is on New Yorker notecard stock, and features Helen’s neat hand. Scanning might preserve the fact of the note, but it can’t communicate the thick, creamy paper, the crisp impression of the New Yorker’s monocle-toting mascot, Eustace P. Tilly. And a digital version could never translate the deep respect I felt at being treated so considerately by a proper grownup at a time when I saw myself as provincial nothing.

And this brings me to books, a spot I didn’t intend to find. I was only going to talk about paper, and what goes on paper. Well, what goes onto paper are words and images, the stuff of books. Those words and images are really nothing more than externalized ideas and feelings. It sounds overly simplistic to spell it out like that, and I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence. It is simply worth thinking about what the tactile, and the actual do. What’s so good about all this stuff we have to carry around with us, filling boxes and shelves?

I’ve moved more times that I can count, and every time I swear I am going to digitize my entire life, throw out the furniture and start over at IKEA wherever I land. Schlepping is a giant drag, literally. Thirty boxes of books came with me to Tampa when I moved there from Las Vegas to create the Bookstore at the Oxford Exchange. Thirty boxes of books, and not one bookshelf made the trip, which is why many of the books ended up in my kitchen on Davis Island, lining the tops of the cabinets. There, they served as companions, informed the creative process of organizing the bookstore, and gave me ideas about what to carry, what to pick for Book Club, and what to do next when I was stumped.  They spoke to me far more often than I spoke to them.

It would have been a pretty silent kitchen, even with the radio blaring, and it will be a pretty silent culture, even with the Internet blaring, unless we save a few things from our world. Print out your emails on good paper, the same for your photos, and anything else that represents a landmark in your life. I am all for paperwork reduction, and in no way urge that we print and save every shred of bureaucracy that crosses our paths. I’m also not against trees. Big fan of trees. What I am arguing in favor of is that we all become the archivists of our own collections. Choose what matters, and what you think will matter to your children and grandchildren, and the generations you can’t see from here, and preserve it. Annotate it. Use your own handwriting. Tell the story only you know. As for love letters, write them by hand and post them with a stamp. Take the time to choose the right paper, and pen. These are creative expressions of you and are, frankly, totally fun. Even if one isn’t a Shakespeare, and none of us is—there was only one of him, too—your beloved will know that your hand held that page, your fingers held the pencil that wrote the words that make such a difference to you. And, by extension, that hand holds yours every time you touch the letter. Forever.


Alison Powell

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