Monday, December 17, 2007

What do you do with the collection of a nobody?

One of the most active archival institutional blogs is Historical Notes from OHSU, the blog of Oregon Health & Science University's Historical Collections & Archives. I'm in awe of the frequency and the quality of the posts on this blog, which attest to some serious blogger discipline. I was struck by this recent post about the desirability of collecting "the great" versus collecting "nobodies," because I had been thinking along similar lines as the result of a collection we surveyed recently.

This particular collection consisted of the papers of a Pennsylvania man who appears to have worked in middle management in some sort of factory or plant. This man was a frustrated writer and inventor, as evidenced by the reams of unpublished manuscripts he left behind -- for poems, plays, essays, and novels (often accompanied by rejection letters), as well as notes on inventions and many politely worded declines from a range of companies of this man’s ideas for "the next big thing." Correspondence in the collection indicates that its creator had contacted a number of repositories in a desperate bid to have it placed somewhere, anywhere, so that his life's work wouldn't be for naught. Correspondence in the collection from the holding repository suggests that the curator took pity on this person, and agreed to take in the collection as "storage." (The collection arrived in the early 1970s, likely at a time when stack space was at less of a premium.) So, this collection has survived and made it into a repository, but to what purpose?

Certainly there is a now fairly longstanding trend of looking into the lives of ordinary people, particularly ordinary women. I don't know if this collection is that reflective of the experience of an "ordinary" man, however – it seems fairly unordinary to leave behind 18 feet of unpublished manuscripts and a raft of letters to various companies suggesting improvements to typewriter efficiency and renewed marketing of the hula hoop. If we approach it from the angle of literature, and place this collection in contrast to the papers of many successful, "great" writers in this repository and other PACSCL repositories, is it a worthwhile juxtaposition? Are bad writers, to paraphrase from Tolstoy’s observation on unhappy families, all bad in their own way? And does that make them worth studying?

Jenny has a category that she's jokingly asked to be added to the survey – whether the collection is good source material for a novel or a movie. This collection certainly fits the bill. I can definitely see the makings of something like American Movie in this person's frustrated aspirations to fame and fortune. But whether this collection could be anything more than that, I just don't know.

Back on the archival track, in the RLG-sponsored "Digitization Matters" forum last summer, Yale's Bill Landis suggested in a talk on mass digitization for archives that it's perhaps best suited for our not-so-great stuff (sound file; if you prefer to read some similarly provocative thoughts along these lines, check out OCLC’s report Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow). Why not put up an undistinguished collection in its entirety with minimal metadata and see whether anyone uses it, he queried. This collection would certainly make for an interesting experiment in that vein.