What does our collection tell us? This is the question I’ve been asking myself, and it is a problem we have returned to again and again, if only abstractly, since we began working with the various objects and categories of our collection. After reading Emily’s recent post, I was reminded of the value of open-ended questions, as opposed to definite answers, both in conceptualizing and contributing to progress toward our goals. This recurring question, I think, alongside certain related ones (Do these items speak for us, or are we trying to speak for them? What can we do to tell their story, if there is a story to tell? How do we negotiate between an archive of things and an archive of memories?), has and will continue to drive our conversations toward assembling, organizing, and, eventually, understanding the collection and our larger objectives with this project.
Working with our collection’s realia has necessitated a very physical engagement with these questions. What did we think when we first began working with these objects? We expected to have fun, admittedly—and how nice not to have to sift through more paperwork, for a change—and so we felt relieved and vindicated in our decision. But there’s a gravity to these objects; literally, of course, but also in their pull upon our imagination. It wouldn’t be difficult, beyond the initial sense of validation, to see these static, unresponsive objects as a sentence, to view any attempt to engage with their presence in our collection as a sort of prison. Luckily, though, there is creativity to be found in ostensible constraints. And, as I mentioned in our brief introductions, the solidity of these items has forced us to imagine, or begin seeing, the story they could tell us.
The realia comprise a regular hodge-podge of sometimes seemingly unrelated items, beyond their donation from Lou and librarian context and use. They vary widely in capacity and condition, from unopened circulation cards to inoperable automatic erasers. Not being particularly gifted in psychometry, we’ve understandably been left with more questions than answers. Although some of our objects are more straightforward in nature, and more forthcoming in providing answers, most have required us to make certain imaginative leaps in building narrative cohesion among them. It’s elementary to see the connection between an automatic eraser and several boxes of 7″ eraser refills, but something else entirely to interpret smudges on an index card as impressions of their association.
Sometimes it’s almost as if we can read their histories through a combination of observation, tactile experience, and regular head-scratching uncertainty (ie. we make a lot of guesses). Anything we can’t infer from basic condition and a little knowledge about function is relegated to this latter category, but even when we know, as we often can, what they do or what they were for, we are still left with questions about the kinds of “lives” they led or about how to weave a story from that information. What can we do with or extrapolate from what we have in front of us? What do our attempts to answer this question suggest about our understanding of the various faces and demands of an archive, and how will this structure our deliverables? I like to think of these inevitable questions, as new beginnings, as opportunities rather than obstacles.
Ultimately, we found that play and the potential within making imaginative leaps to be the best approaches to this sub-collection. Pressing buttons may only get us so far, but it is illuminating, and we are lucky in that many of our items betray themselves, and their stories, through a considered combination of form, function, and condition. A counting machine is a counting machine is a counting machine, but ours was clearly heavily used, and yet remarkably well-preserved. Whether we can hope to understand the numbers left behind from its last use (00010467), we can loosely infer not only that this machine was an integral part of some operation or service within the library at a time before personal computing or digital calculators, but that it was conscientiously cared for by someone as well. That’s at least a start.
And honestly, sometimes it’s all about trial-and-error… emphasis on the error:
Obviously I had a great deal of fun exploring this collection, but our process suggests something more expansive: are we willing to remain open-minded, and to be surprised? This question arises out of my interaction with the realia items, but it applies, I think, to the goals of the project itself. The Scholars’ Commons will be a place where a variety of services and resources are offered, but it will also be one that provides a space and framework for collaboration, relationship-building, and ongoing learning. If the realia have taught me anything, it is that we must maintain a reparative attitude and an expansive approach to possibilities.
So I end as I began, with a question: What’s next?