Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Discovering Writer Archives

Where are the archives of writers? How do we find and interact with them? How can we promote their existence?

Writers always write and overtime, they accumulate thousands of pages of diaries, letters, rough drafts, and private notes.  Novelists, biographers, and others are infatuated with writer archives.

The Writer, a wonderful magazine, had a story in its August issue about writer archives, stating: “By studying the personal diaries, notes, drafts and letters of writers, we often see a side of them not read in their books, and we can trace how they developed as people and writers.”

The whole thing sounds fascinating, to have access to the millions of words that collected dust in a lifetime of writing.  Archives may not capture everything written by famous writers, but they sure retain a lot of history and insight into the mind and life of the writer.  Imagine having access to one’s email account and all of the private notes stored on one’s smartphone?  Get the idea?

Some writers may not give any thought to having an archive created, while others believe the published record is all that should remain, and not the scraps of ideas or partial thoughts that never saw the light of day for a reason.  But many archives exist out there, and though I’ve never gained access to one, they sound fascinating.

A few archives were listed in the article, including these:

Maya Angelou Papers (1958-1990) – New York Public Library
Ray Bradbury – Indiana University
Truman Capote Papers (1924-1984) – New York Public Library
E. E. Cummings Papers (1916-1962) -- New York Public Library
Emily Dickinson Collection – Harvard University
F. Scott Fitzgerald – Princeton University
Jon Steinbeck – National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA
Mark Twain – University of CA, Berkeley
Ayn Rand – The Ayn Rand Institute, Irvine, CA
George Orwell – University College in London
Toni Morrison – Princeton University
Jack Kerouac – New York Public Library

If you go to www.wgfoundation.org, you’ll find a way to search for the index of film, TV, and radio writers and the repositories that hold their materials.  The Library of Congress, major libraries and universities, and select museums tend to house writer archives.  But The Writers Guild Foundation Archive contains many unique and rare items from the personal papers of prominent writers.

One archive that’s fairly large is the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of The University of Texas at Austin.  It contains one 36,000,000 manuscript pages and a million books.  It houses things like a rare first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and one of the 48 complete Gutenberg Bibles.

Will your work end up in an archive on e day?  As things move to the digital world, will an archive exist merely online and not physically anywhere?  Maybe one day there will be an archive for my blog, where copious drafts fill drawers upon drawers of massive filing cabinets.  I doubt it.  There’s no evidence of my blog beyond the posts that I make daily.  I don’t keep any written notes, even though I do write with a pen before readers see the typed version.

Most archives never see the light of day.  A few researches and historians might skim a select number of documents for a handful of writers, but most collections rarely get read page for page.  There just isn’t enough time in the day to rummage through hand-written notes that were often drafted in cryptic forms.  

I believe there’s interest and value in combing through a writer’s archive but I also believe that whatever was deemed good enough for publication when the author made such decisions is what we should look at.  Everything else is just a refection of unfinished ideas and experiments that, for whatever reason, were left behind.  We need a filter to help guide us and I trust that an author’s filter should be respected.

One day we’ll figure out how to read and record our thoughts.  Will archives download the life we lived in our imagination and judge it harshly?  Archives are one step removed from such a thing – but not far off.  Archives give us a license to snoop on a writer, to get a glimpse into their unpublished lives, private thoughts, secret activities, and personal insecurities.

The life of an archivist sounds both boring and exciting in our instance.  But it would be cool to write a story about an archive or archivist and how buried among millions of pieces of paper we discover new truths, hidden facts, and rare glimpses into the mindsets of our greatest writers.  

Then, whomever writers such a book will eventually die and leave his or her papers behind for an archivist to curate.  Then someone should write about he archivist and the process repeats itself, again and again.

Maybe archives hold all kinds of secrets and insights – and perhaps they are worth exploring.  But I just hope that we promote and protect the published writings of those we seek to define by what was never supposed to see the light of day.


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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