Spring 2018–Winter 2019

Leftovers / Scene Missing

An archivist’s story

Max Goldberg

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

I had been working in the medical archive for several weeks, and on one doctor’s papers for several days, when I found the letters. Stuffed into a single folder, rubber band long since expired, were dozens of inquiries made following news stories of the doctor’s research into cures for nerves and exhaustion. (This was the 1940s, before “depression.”) The letters were from women, soldiers’ wives mostly. They wrote on behalf of husbands who were soon to return from the war or those who had become withdrawn since coming home. The letters were invariably written in a fine hand, and this more than anything else is what made them so heartbreaking.

Encounters like these are rare. Generally speaking, the work of an archivist is neither romantic nor reassuring. The collection is typically housed in a basement, sequestered from natural light. You think, The person responsible for these papers died, I will die, and if anyone ever finds them useful—a big if—he too will die. Whole afternoons go by this way. And yet there are times when in spite of these difficulties, or more likely because of them, something rushes to the surface, and you encounter some scrap of history as if recovering your own long-forgotten memories. Drawing on archival records for his histories of sexuality and power, Foucault allowed how “these accounts, which have suddenly leapt across two and a half centuries of silence, have resonated with something deep inside me, more than what we ordinarily call literature.”[1] As an archivist, you are enjoined to leave the research to the researcher, but you still find ways to heed these unexpected openings across time and space. Having felt the mind leap, you endeavor to know why.

The early months working in an archive can recall those bright undergraduate days when a few weeks gets you up to speed on Tacitus and Trotsky. Learning the ropes as a reference specialist in Brandeis University’s Archives and Special Collections department, 
I found myself suddenly engrossed in Shakespeare’s publication history and the Leo Frank lynching, Buffalo Bill dime novels and Renaissance cryptography. I learned where to find Angela Davis’s undergraduate thesis on Alain Robbe-Grillet and the roster of the university’s 1963 baseball team. When Meir Kahane’s grandson was arrested in Israel in April 2015, I immediately thought of the Jewish fundamentalist’s controversial appearance at Brandeis mere days before he was assassinated in 1990. Working in the archive, the twentieth century begins to resemble a giant cut-up poem. Learning to read it only takes time.

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