Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Into the fortress

[Since I've been spending a bit of time in archives lately, I thought I'd post this piece of my slowly gestating book on Kendrick Smithyman, in an effort to explain the attraction that the places can exert...]

In Angels and Demons, the blockbusting sequel to the blockbusting film adaption of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a reckless experiment with anti-matter by a clique of secretive scientists is hijacked by a group of ultra-conservative Catholic clergymen, who use it to stage a modern-day ‘miracle’ designed to give their leader the Papacy. For most of Angels and Demons, both science and religion are presented as fanatical and conspiratorial creeds; laboratories and churches are both places of danger and deceit, watched over by men and women who prefer ideology to truth. The repository of truth, and the natural habitat of the movie’s hero, is the library archive. It is in the fusty quiet of the Vatican library’s enormous basement archive, amidst treatises by Leonardo and Karl Barth, that the veteran scholar Robert Langdon – played rather unconvincingly by the avuncular Tom Hanks – discovers the plan of the ultra-conservatives, confounding in the process his female sidekick, who as a physicist and a philistine cannot understand why anybody would look for truth in an old manuscript.

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that 2009’s biggest film should have been so preoccupied with the research archive. Since the beginning of the digital age, the archive has begun to seem both old-fashioned and attractive. With its shelves full of sturdy first editions and folders bulging with unpublished manuscripts, the archive appears a more robust and more ordered repository of knowledge than the vast, continually fluctuating collection of texts and images which is the internet. The archive also seems exotic. Yellow letters filed in an archive have a permanence that seems foreign in an age when most correspondence is conducted by text; the innumerable alternate and abandoned drafts of manuscripts which writers once left to archives also seem strange, in an era when a mouse click can delete an inconvenient paragraph or chapter.

Nor is it entirely surprising that the humble archival researcher should become the hero of a Hollywood blockbuster. In the twenty-first century, scientists make difficult heroes: for a Western public increasingly inclined to find simple reasons for complex problems, the men and women in white coats seem implicated in evils like pollution, dangerous drugs, and genetically modified food. Other varieties of intellectual seem no more esteemed. Theologians, who provided the moral centre of many a horror movie in the 1970s and ‘80s, now suffer from the widespread association of religion with extremism, terrorism, and – in the West, at least – paedophilia. Led by the crass and canny Damien Hirst, artists have become paragons of self-indulgence and egotism, and are widely seen as little more than the highbrow equivalents of football stars.

With his apparent lack of ideological motivation, his humility in the face of the mighty dead and their hoard of words, and his commitment to the patient, unspectacular preservation and accumulation of knowledge, Tom Hanks’ character in Angels and Demons seems a worthier hero than intellectuals working in fields that have traditionally been considered more glamorous. If the library archive is the place of order in a disorderly world, then the archivist is the guardian of order.

The recent controversy over plans to renovate Turnbull library, the Wellington home of New Zealand’s largest collection of unpublished manuscripts, provided another sign of changing attitudes towards research libraries and the scholars who use them. When they announced plans to demolish the uncompromisingly brutalist facade the Turnbull gained in the ‘70s and replace it with glass, bureaucrats justified themselves with rhetoric about making the library seem more ‘welcoming’ and ‘accessible’, and less like a ‘fortress’. Yet, as numerous letters to New Zealand dailies have shown, it is precisely the fortress-like quality of the Turnbull which excites admiration. It is as though the high, aggressively angled concrete walls of the Turnbull have helped to preserve the purity of the library’s contents, and to assist the labours of scholars in its quiet interior.

If the Beehive and the parliament buildings across the road symbolise the intense but shallow world of our politics, where a week is a long time and research and thought are always disciplined by practical calculation, then the Turnbull seems, in the eyes of many of its defenders, to represent a place where history and ideas are valued for their own sake. Why shouldn’t an institution like the Turnbull throw up defences against the coarse outside world? Research librarians share, or seem to share, the notion of the archive as a place of seclusion and order. Certainly, their practices seem inspired by the notion. There is a pronounced difference between a research library and an ‘ordinary’ community library. A community library is more often than not full of sound, as librarians read to children nestled in bean bags, and pensioners discuss the morning’s headlines at the newspaper table, and couples argue about responsibility for fines at the lending desk. In a community library, noise is not only tolerated but celebrated, as evidence of patronage.

In a research library, by contrast, silence is the norm. Children are usually absent, the newspapers opened on reading tables are likely to be decades old, and patrons are expected to emit as little noise as possible. The archival wing of a research library is a sort of inner sanctum – a church within a church – with its own peculiar rules and rituals, many of which seemed designed to encourage not only silence but a sort of solemnity. Scholars must show identification and fill out forms before they can enter an archive, and once inside they must use special tools –they must, for instance, write with pencils rather than pens, and they must don tight white gloves whenever they handle fragile manuscripts. Seemingly simple tasks like photocopying and scanning may be performed only by the archive’s staff, and only under written request. As I ride a bus into Auckland’s central business district, I notice that one of my fellow-passengers, a middle aged man in a rain-stained suit that looks a size too small for him, wears a cotton mask over his mouth. Does he fear being infected by one of the several varieties of flu that are prospering in Auckland this winter, or is he a flu sufferer who wants to limit his role as a carrier? Should I be afraid of him, or is he afraid of me? As the bus slides from Karangahape Road onto Pitt Street, drenching a poodle and its owner in a gutter’s grey water, I hear the mask cough, then talk, in a deep slow voice, into a cellphone. “Three interviews last week, no luck...” I wonder whether my fellow-passenger removed his disguise when he spoke to his prospective employers, or whether they were treated to same Darth Vader drawl. I glance at the soggy paper in my lap and read GRIM FORECAST – UNEMPLOYMENT TO RISE. I turn a page and find an article on the unwinnable imperialist war in Afghanistan, and another predicting that the entire nation of Kiribati will be rendered uninhabitable by the end of the century, as carbon in the air makes the seas rise.

Cool windy rain is falling as I get off the bus on Queen Street and climb through Albert Park, but inside the University of Auckland library it is almost uncomfortably warm, and I remove my jacket as I approach the Special Collections Room, which is sealed off from the rest of the ground floor by a thick glass door adorned with a sign saying THIS SPACE IS NOT FOR STUDY USE. The door is, as usual, locked, and I have to ring a bell before one of the archivists emerges from the maze of tables stacked with manuscript folders that seems to constitute an office space.

Inside the Special Collections Room I select a pencil and a pile of pristine pages from the stationery table and whisper to one of the archivists, a tall thin pale man who moves about his domain as gracefully and unobstrusively as a background character in a masque. ‘Kendrick Smithyman papers, Manuscripts and Typescripts, manuscripts starting with E. I’m still working through the Es.’ ‘I remember’ he says, in a voice that makes my whisper sound like shout. ‘You should be onto the Fs soon. Three or four folders to go. I hear P is a big one...’ As he flits away towards the desks I wonder whether archives attract men and women who speak and move quietly, or whether archivists have to learn, over a period of months or years, to speak softly, step lightly, and always refrain from burping or farting.

Even a very modest burp could certainly be heard across the whole of the Special Collections Room, such is the silence that presides here. At the table beside mine, a couple of impeccably bald old men graze books with the huge pages and oppressively heavy leather covers of the nineteenth century family Bibles that floated to this country in the holds of overloaded sailing ships. I crane my neck, and see that the pages are filled, not with Psalms and genealogies and woodcut portraits of Saints, but with column after column of handwritten figures. In the office space beyond the old men’s table, Special Collections staff move efficiently about, placing a folder on a shelf, taking another down from a shelf...This is the domain of calm and order.

Now four folders full of loose papers are placed soundlessly in front of me. I open one, and begin to work.

[Footnote: the Special Collections staff at the University of Auckland library operate a very fine blog, which you can read here. To find out about the work Special Collections staff have done on Kendrick Smithyman's papers, check out this post. The long-suffering Marxologists who frequent this site might enjoy reading about the recent mini-exhibition Special Collections staff mounted to publicise the papers of the veteran Kiwi commie Bill McAra.]


Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

Wasn't McAra one of those who went with the pro-Chinese split from the CPNZ in the mid-late 70s?

I agree there's nothing like a trip to the library archives to inculcate a feeling of humility in one's own intellectual, artistic or political endeavours. Kind of like Longinus' encounter with the poetic sublime - a reminder of our individual insignificance, yet despite this still somehow strangely exhilarating...

1:04 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Tim,

After I saw the exhibition - which was very well done - I looked up McAra's book 'Laws of the New Zealand Revolution', which had been described as his 'major work'. What a disappointment: page upon page of turgid polemic against 'revisionists' and 'Trotskyists'. The latter group of renegades apparently included Ray Nunes, leader of another splinter from the Communist Party and the author of formulations like 'hate Stalin, hate communism'! I had been naive enough to believe that McAra might have wanted to use his book to study New Zealand history and society in a serious and sustained way. I think McAra's papers, which are extensive, would contain a lot of interesting material, despite his uninterestingly Stalinist politics. The interesting stuff would have gotten there without McAra realising it.

1:30 pm  
Anonymous long live class struggle anarchism! said...

ha ha you guys have really lost the plot...retreating from the barricades to the archive...ex-activists...enjoy your bourgeois monasteries, some of us have the class struggle!

1:56 pm  
Blogger Edward said...

yes, far better to struggle without knowledge than to seek understanding...yay for ignorance in anarchy.

3:48 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Believe it or not, I was just in the Special Collections room at the uni library, and I saw someone digging into the McAra papers! From what I overheard her say to a staff member, she seemed to be interested in the role of the Communist Party in the '51 lockout. Another refugee from the barricades?

4:54 pm  
Blogger Fatal Paradox said...

I don't see how visiting library archives is inimical to leftist political activity - when I was an active Trotskyist in my early 20s I used to go down to the Hocken Library in Dunedin on a regular basis to read back issues of NZ socialist publications from the 1960s and 70s. This was an important part of my political education, as it enabled me to learn about the history of the revolutionary left in NZ and the reasons for its failure to-date - as well as helping to understand why its forces are so tiny today.

The only alternative would have been to rely on the standard boilerplate tale of 'apostolic succession' supplied by the various contemporary micro-sects like the Sparts - whose version of events is always distorted by the need to present themselves as the residual legatee of 'classical' marxism. Meanwhile other less ultraleft groups such as the Organisation Formerly Known as the CPNZ show no interest in discussing their history (or past mistakes) at all...

5:18 pm  
Blogger meyerprints said...

6:52 pm  
Anonymous go for anarchy, government is chaos said...

Fetal Paradox is a termite.

9:02 pm  
Anonymous anarchy is freedom, government is chaos said...

all this talk about the past...WHAT ABOUT THE NOW?

do you live or exist?

fuck the the barricades!

9:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like the fools are out...

11:19 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

The analogy between violence as opposed to considered thought is rather telling of our anarchist friend..

5:35 pm  
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7:47 pm  

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