From The Paris Review:
I was a student in the University of Cape Town’s English department when the Ransom Center acquired J. M. Coetzee’s papers. This was in 2012, when to be a student in the English department at UCT was to be required to hold a strong, fluently expressed opinion on J. M. Coetzee, his life, his work, the position he held within the South African academy, and whether or not there was a “fascinating contrast” between that position and the one he held overseas. Extra points if you could get all this off while referring to him at least once as “John Maxwell Coetzee” in an ironic and weary tone of voice. I never really got to the bottom of why people liked that so much, saying “John Maxwell Coetzee” and then looking around proudly, sometimes with the nostrils a bit flared. I’d managed to discharge the obligation to have an opinion on Coetzee by having a strident opinion on Nadine Gordimer instead, and so never learned why it was hilarious to refer to him by something other than his initials.
I did learn to smile knowingly when it happened, which was very often. No smiling about the Ransom Center acquisition though, a subject that was discussed with such bitterness that for a while I thought “Ransom Center” was departmental shorthand for American rapaciousness, something to do with rich U.S. institutions holding the rest of the world to ransom, riding roughshod over questions of legacy and snatching up bits of history to which they had no rightful claim. The Harry Ransom Center is of course a real place, situated on the University of Texas campus, containing one of the most extensive and valuable archival collections in the world. One million books, five million photographs, a hundred thousand works of art, and forty-two million literary manuscripts. Highlights of the collection, according to the center’s unusually user-friendly website, include a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible, a First Folio, and the manuscript collections of Capote, Carrington, Coetzee, Coleridge, Conrad, Crane, Crowley, Cummings, and Cusk, looking at just the c’s. James Joyce’s personal library from when he lived in Trieste is in there, as well as the personal libraries of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Don DeLillo, and Evelyn Waugh.
A friend who went to UT told me that the Ransom Center is an ordinary-looking building, big and brown, and that it would be easy to walk past and have no idea what was in there. She said that undergraduates do it every day. I have confirmed this description by looking at photos online, but it doesn’t sit right with me on a symbolic level. It should be bigger, surely, resembling more of a compound or fortress. It should emit some kind of low humming sound, or glow. Forty-two million manuscripts! A million books! Kilometers of archival holdings in climate-controlled rooms, all wrapped up in sheaves and purpose-built cardboard boxes, lovingly tended to by armies of well-compensated grad students. This same friend was doing some work in the archives when they received Norman Mailer’s manuscripts. Great jubilation heard throughout the Center, she said. A week of celebrations culminated in a party where all the attendees were given little boxing-glove key rings.
I didn’t know all that then, only that the Center had a lot of money, and that people in my department said it had effectively ripped Coetzee’s papers out of the hands of South African scholars forever. Cape Town is far away from a lot of places, but it is very far away from Texas. Even if you got funded, who would have the resources or the time to apply for the visa (expensive, takes ages), travel to Texas, and then sit in the reading rooms of the Center for months, going through the small spiral notebooks in which the earliest drafts of Waiting for the Barbarians were sketched out? I sympathized, but not very much. The bulk of Gordimer’s papers, as far as I knew, had been at the Lilly Library in Indiana since 1993. Also very far away, also involving grant applications in order to travel for many days, and the reading room was probably not even as nice. I had long ago accepted that I was just not the sort of person to overcome these obstacles, and I thought the Coetzee people should see their problem in a similar light. They might never actually touch the manuscripts with their own two hands, but someone would, and surely it was nice to know they were being looked after so well. David Foster Wallace’s archive, which included about two hundred annotated books from his own library, had been acquired by the Center two years earlier. There were already stories of students going to Texas purely to sit and commune with his library, weeping over his copy of White Noise, touching the pages of certain books over and over until they went all soft and frilly and had to be removed from general circulation, replaced with digitized copies. I myself could not imagine getting on a plane in order to touch a book, but I liked the idea that some people would, and that there were institutions with the money and the will to facilitate this kind of behavior.
It’s possible, also, that I was able to take this benevolent view of things because the documents I needed for my own research were housed in a building about a ten-minute walk from my front door, at the Western Cape Provincial Archives on Roeland Street. I was writing about literary censorship during apartheid, with a particular focus on the state’s treatment of the novels of Nadine Gordimer. Six of her novels passed through the system. Three were banned and three weren’t. There was no discernible logic behind these decisions. The Publications Control Board was accountable to almost no one, and the censors were given extraordinary freedom to ban whatever they liked. Often what they did with that freedom was write long, rambling, defensive accounts of their decisions.
I was fascinated and disgusted by their reports, the venom and the stupidity and the intellectual waste they represented. I’d go to the archives to fish out a specific set of documents—say, the files pertaining to the appeal against the banning of Burger’s Daughter—and I’d end up stuck there for a whole day, and then a week, helplessly reading through a knee-high stack of files relating to the censor’s opinions on Pale Fire, or a stash of letters from members of the public demanding that the censors do something about copies of Franny and Zooey continuing to circulate through the nation’s public libraries (“dangerous filth emanating from a certain class of writer in the United States of America and masquerading as ‘culture’”). I’d worked out that these boxes of files amounted to just under a hundred linear meters’ worth of material, and I hated the idea that I would never be able to look through it all.
. . . .
I read Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, and drew a red wiggly line under the part where she says that Archive Fever is “the desire to recover moments of inception: to find and possess all sorts of beginnings.” Carolyn Steedman, thank you very much. I drew a less vigorous line under the part where she withdraws that understanding hand and says, “And nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught halfway through: the middle of things; discontinuities.” I knew she was right, that every archive is necessarily fragmented and incomplete, but I didn’t like it.
I stopped being a student, eventually, after finally managing to wrench myself out of the archives and write something about what I believed I’d found. I stopped worrying that I hadn’t looked at enough of it, because of course I hadn’t, and I stopped making urgent notes to myself in the margins of Gordimer’s novels. I read her books for pleasure again, and tried not to look too proprietorial whenever her work came up in conversation, because no one cares about your thesis.
Link to the rest at The Paris Review
PG notes that, based on his ancient past as a student employee in a large university library (entirely physical, including the books on microfiche, which were torture to read), if a book is misfiled in a large library, unless it’s misfiled in a likely location, it might as well have been shipped to Dallas or Capetown.
Perhaps major research libraries pay their staff a lot more than PG earned, but he suspects that moving very many boxes, books, cases, binders, etc., around any sort of library or archive will involve one or more poorly-paid laborers in that process.
One of the many, many nice things about digital collections is that they can be backed-up and copies of the backups can be disbursed all over the place so nobody really can destroy all of them.
As PG has mentioned before, in ancient times, he spent about three years working for the company that provided (and still provides) the Lexis and Nexis and related databases for you to search in to your heart’s desire provided your credit card limit is sufficiently high. Everything was on a bunch of mainframe computers in a data center surrounded by thick glass walls and even the president of the company had to be escorted into the actual presence of the large collection of mainframe computers. (The president when PG was there wouldn’t have known the difference between a mainframe and a refrigerator in any case, so PG doubts he ever did anything other than glance into the glass fortress on the way to a meeting somewhere else.
At any rate, the organized electrons humming around on those mainframes had cost millions and millions and millions of dollars to organize and be made searchable. The building surround the mainframe was built like a medieval fortress and, supposedly a jetliner could crash into the outside of the building without making it through to the electrons.
That said, each day, a backup of the entire collection was made (presumably on a bunch of giant reels of magnetic tape, but PG never asked) then a copy of the backup was made. One copy was sent many miles North and the other copy was sent many miles South for storage in some secret place. This was done so a major catastrophe would have to hit all three places at about the same time to wipe out the entire collection, a task that would likely to have required a large air force that knew exactly where each of the places were.
The main data center was far away from earthquake country, but the storage locations were earthquake-proofed, etc.
Regardless of how impressive its physical structure, a major research library with everything or most things on paper or in other physical forms is quite a dangerous place to house original and irreplaceable documents.