Fear and Loathing in the Archive

To get to the archives I went up down left and right on Harvard Yard but Pusey Library was nowhere to be found. I had walked over it several times not considering that the Library named after the twenty year President of Harvard, and the man who broke the Harvard Strike of 1969, was a bunker hidden from sight. Willingly I entered the dimly lit and cloistered space. Outside promised rain, already muggy and looking generally nasty.

I was not happy to be there. I had sent an email in advance, the no response made me unsure if I would be able to open a single box of the Leontief and Gershenkron papers. I was also severely jet lagged, and made myself awake by ingesting heavy quantities of overpriced coffee.

At the library door, I was barred by a rumpled hippie, beads and all that. He asked for my passport and filled in paperwork to allow me in. The irony was heavy on my stomach, or maybe it was the salmonella in the tomatoes. Pusey is staffed by freaks. They smile at you and ask if there is a big Visigoth influence in the racial make up of Portugal. You could do away with the ecstasy pills, the bunnies and the ostriches, if you got a job at Pusey.

The wizards of the history of economics say about archives:

“By painting a picture of life within the community of economists, such correspondence can help researchers to better understand the development of economic thought, the public and private motives of individuals, and the process of interaction within and across intellectual communities.” — Weintraub et al, JEL, Sep. 1998

On most days this is a good description of what to do with archives. I have heard a lot less credible stories: one history fiend once told me that he got no high from archives and would rather other people do it. The reasoning was that if some specialized, others could be forgiven the trip.

My gig is different. I search the archive for the craziness. My Magnum 44 eyes the turn of phrase. I am treking for the characters of my plot and the little story that gets missed in the written and proper record. It is the understanding I am looking for, but also the props for the staging. After all, history is storytelling.

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3 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in the Archive

  1. I really like this little archive story. If only because it echoes my own vivid memories of past archives journeys. I’m obviously not the only one sensing that working on these old dusty boxes in the basement of an old library creates a somewhat surrealistic atmosphere. I remember the constrast between the silent and warm atmosphere of a reading room and the snowy streets of Stockholm, or between the darkness and coolness of a library and the stifling and bright summer evenings in California. I remember feeling like a soldier crawling in the mud, sitting for 8 hours a day in front of pages of correspondance in a language I knew barely 20 words of. I remember a week end visit in a modern American town after ten days alone wwith my cold war characters, hardly speaking to a twentyone century “real” person, and my resulting feeling of being “lost in translation.” I remember trying to explain during 10 evenings to 20 ophtalmologists attending a summer school in Stanford that there was something to”research” in history….unsucessfully.

    This is really a nice part of our jobs!

  2. The pic is great. Yes, searching archives is super-geeky and one gets sick of opening boxes in these silent, air-conned rooms. But the thrill of excitement when one finds THE letter makes me impatient of my next trip to the archives.

    PS: ok, one never finds this legendary, unique letter. Still!

  3. I agree to what have been said.
    The only problem with archives, is that most of the time, you sit and open the box, and your hands are shaking as you open the folder that seems so promising, full of exiting controversies about articles rejection, plots that involve mont pelerin society members…
    And finally, you find THE letter :

    Dear Gary,

    The lunch at the Perroquet was so delicious. I hope to see you in december.

    George

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