Wednesday, 5 December 2012

In Praise of Archivists

Archivists, according to Patricia Bell, “live on in the footnotes to the works of authors they have helped”. Patricia’s memorial service was held this week in Bedford (she was the Bedfordshire County Archivist from 1968-1986) and I am sorry I could not be there. When I read her obituary in The Guardian recently, I recalled three occasions our paths crossed. She was someone who lives on not just in authors’ footnotes but in their memories.

It’s easy to imagine archivists leading quiet lives in dusty basements, cataloguing, conserving, dealing with enquiries, making the best of whatever limited resources (shelf space as much as subsidy) they can get their hands on. Patricia Bell certainly began her career in such surroundings: Richard Wildman, author of the Guardian obit., and the leading authority on Bedford’s architectural heritage, spoke of her working in the “cramped conditions of the Victorian Shire Hall”. But when I first met her, she was the presiding spirit of the new Records Office, housed in spacious and welcoming quarters in the riverside County Hall. She had helped to plan these new premises, and they were designed to prove that working with archives could be enlightening literally and academically.

The timid novice researcher – as I certainly was – found Patricia a daunting, larger-than-life figure; but when I told her I wanted to research the history of punting on the River Ouse in Bedford, there was only a momentary pause before she rose to the challenge and said, “Well, everybody has their own particular itch, and if punting’s yours, we’d better help you scratch it.” This she and her staff duly did, revealing to me the mysteries of the newspaper catalogue, the photographic archive and the microfiche. They even put me in touch with surviving members of the Bedford boating families, the Chethams, the Biffens and the Bryants. I like to think the encouragement I received from Patricia is indeed reflected in the footnotes – and in the main text too – of my article, ‘Punting in Bedford’, published eventually in The Bedfordshire Magazine.

A little later, I went back to the Record Office. ‘Still on punting?’ asked Patricia briskly, her tone perhaps suggesting it was time I applied myself to something less frivolous. When I told her that now I was researching the work of the architect George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), she brightened immediately. ‘Excellent!’ she beamed. ‘We’ve got a lot of the great man’s letters here, but I warn you, his handwriting will give you a headache.’ She was quite right, and though after thirty years I can now decipher Bodley’s scrawl as well as anyone, it was Patricia’s enthusiasm that got me started. Even then, I remember being impressed by how she instantly knew what her archives contained that would be of interest to me.

Archivists don’t usually loom large in literature, but there is an excellent – and in my view underrated – novel by the American writer Martha Cooley called The Archivist. In this novel the eponymous archivist, Matthias Lane, looks after the special collections of an academic library that contains one great treasure, an archive of letters and unpublished poems written by T.S. Eliot over several decades to his close friend Emily Hale, the New England teacher he’d known and loved before he settled in London and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Although this archive is embargoed until 2020, Matthias knows what’s in it – he and he alone has read these letters – and he knows that one day they’ll be a treasure equal to the original mss. of The Waste Land, which eventually surfaced after lying undetected for more than forty years in New York Public Library.

The book is about the dilemmas facing Matthias. He believes that ‘a good archivist serves the reader best by maintaining … a balance between empathy and distance. It is important, I’ve discovered, to be neither too close to nor too distant from a reader’s desire.’ (p.246) Faced, though, with a young researcher determined to get her hands on the Eliot/Hale letters, he has to rethink his responsibilities towards the woman who took her revenge by placing Eliot’s letters where he could not get at them, and to Eliot himself, horrified that these revealing documents were now beyond his power to retrieve.

In the course of The Archivist, Matthias Lane has revealing things to say about his job.  He feels a strong sense of the power he wields in controlling access to the material in his care. Above all, though, he likes to be alone with his archive:

I need these hours of silent physical labor, when I am alone with the collection and can experience it in its entirety. It’s become almost a living thing for me. The bound books and loose-leaf manuscripts and files of letters and photos are a many-voiced convocation I attend as a kind of permanent host. Whenever I can, I read. Familiarity with the collection is my first obligation. (p.9)

Some archivists might disagree: they’d say preservation of the collection comes first. I’ve never met an archivist who would allow the de-accessioning of any holdings in the way librarians tolerate, reluctantly, the de-accessioning of surplus or outdated stock. ‘Some day someone just may want to look at this’ is the reflex of the true archivist.

While I still lived in Bedford, I was entrusted with an archive of marginal local interest: a collection of school magazines, prospectuses, photographs and newspaper cuttings. They were what remained of a now-long-defunct boarding school on the Beds-Bucks border of the county, the one I’d first attended at the age of 7. The archive wasn’t large and it sat in my cupboard, almost (I confess) forgotten until I was about to move to a far county. Diffidently, I offered it to the County Record Office. ‘Of course we’ll take it,’ said Patricia Bell. ‘You never know, it might be even more important than the history of punting.’

I suspect she was right. Judge for yourself: you can visit part of this archive right now. Click here.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: The Archivist (Abacus, 1998) and The Bedfordshire Magazine (vol.19, no.145, Summer 1983).


  1. One of your best, Adrian! — would that the professions were full of Patricia Bells! I’ve looked up Martha Cooley’s The Archivist on Amazon’s ‘Look inside’, and was immediately attracted to her writing:

    ‘I’ve been reading T. S. Eliot again, the nice hardback edition of his poems that Roberta gave me before she left. I’d almost forgotten how heady Eliot is, how much thinking he crowds into “Four Quartets”:

    The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies, for the pattern is new in every moment’

    It’s to be my ‘Christmas read’...

  2. I’d warmly recommend The Archivist to anyone with an interest in the relationship between poetry and biography, as well as to anyone with an enthusiasm for the poetry of TS Eliot. I know, for instance, of no other writer - novelist or critic - who has paid careful attention to Eliot’s poem ‘Usk’, which I much admire and about which I have written in my book World and Time: Teaching Literature in Context (C.U.P. 2009)