archives and anthologies

A couple of weeks ago I spent time paging through papers in folders in file boxes. I’d never imagined that when I was told that the records of the office I’m taking over now/not-until-July (long story) were “archived in the Library” that this was going to amount to more than a two-inch binder. Imagine my surprise when the archivist wheeled out two large boxes filled with file folders that documented only the first two years. I sat down and started paging through things that had been long forgotten: hard copies of emails exchanged and workshops announced. It was amazing how much information was there, literally in my hands, right before my eyes. After half an hour (25 minutes more than I’d thought I’d be spending) I realized that I needed to come back, but now with a new appreciation of the archived record.

On the weekend of my birthday, Karyn gave me an expansive volume of poetry, complete with CD recordings of the original authors’ readings, ranging from the late 19th century to present day. It’s like a tomb of poetry with the corpses of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath, their own voices called out via CD from the grave. I sit down with just the book and open it, randomly, and begin paging through. Where do you start? Page 1? Or in the middle? Or at the end? And then once that’s figured out do you start by reading or listening, or both? Or back and forth? So far, I’ve mostly just been pondering the presence of “Nothing Gold Can Stay” somewhere not at the beginning nor at the end, and considering the lives of the poems themselves. I have a sort of awe for this book because it feels to me like some kind of preservation of something that people got just right, just so that you’d want to read them again and again.

Back to my new office, down the hall from the archives of the library, there’s a giant shelf of books belonging to the office itself. These are all books that have been used in faculty discussion groups and other workshops. A few I’ve read, although most of these are in hardback and I wonder if I could trade them out with my softcover versions. Mostly, though, I realize that these are here not as archives for something we need to preserve, but a trail of breadcrumbs . .. or maybe cobwebs. There is a pile of suggestions for other books that we could read for professional development, and I wonder where I’m going to find room for them. Which perfectly good book needs to get moved away to provide room for the latest up-and-comer? I suspect the copy of Dewey’s Democracy and Education is the oldest title on the shelf, but I’ll protect it and let the other fly-by-night philosophers get discarded long before.

Down the hall and up the stairs and around the corner, in another office of the library, I found myself paging through a stack of books from Q181. Our librarian asked me to see which of these we absolutely needed to keep, because otherwise they were on deck to be discarded . . . because nothing gold can stay, I suppose? Some have sat there for eight, nine decades, watching the university itself move lumberingly through the 20th century and beyond. Many, many texts document the late 1950’s and ’60’s, and in particular it was interesting to note those dated to 1956 and one with the prologue dated January of 1957. These were printed immediately before the launch of Sputnik, and being texts in science education, they seemed almost as though they had a false start. Each text for the next decade or more notes the “post-Sputnik” world and all that’s associated with such a new political order. I wonder if the pre-Sputnik books felt foolish, as though they arrived at a party too early and in the wrong clothes.

I started saving these refugees from Q181, some returned to the shelves for some historical significance — like my own anthology of poetry, they tell a story that documents where we’ve been, with voices that probably aren’t too different from what we utter now. And a few other texts have made it to my personal collection, rather than the trash bin. I saved these because a few are historically significant, but most of them are just irresistible. How could you throw away a text with diagrams and full instructions to make your own overhead projector? Nothing gold can stay, but I’ll do what I can.

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