This is me on my 45th birthday in one of the best places in the world: the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York, New York. The Academy of Finland funding has allowed me to have my first full-time research leave in a decade, and to spend the time efficiently, I gave myself a birthday present: a two-week “residency” in this collection. The above photograph is of the second floor circulating collections, where books are on open shelves, but much of my time was actually spent with archival collections in the third floor.
The archive requires certain specialist tools of the trade to deal with paper in various stages of disintegration – special supports for books whose spines are like those of a very old person arthritic under the weight of years, led string wrapped in cloth to hold one’s place without cracking the page, and a microspatula for turning a new leaf because a fingertip will only turn the edge to dust.
A historian is taught early on that very old materials or things that are in poor condition have to be treated with care so as to preserve them for others who might need them later. You are never the last person to want to read this or see this or touch this. Someone else – probably someone smarter – will come along and discover it anew. This is a lesson in ethics: I am not who matters, the matter itself has the right to be treated with respect.
Yet, as with ethics, we always will fail and are thus encouraged to try anew and improve on ourselves in treating these material remains of a past chosen for preservation. Disintegration is simply inevitable, entropy seeks to overpower the universe. The materiality of this paper is one of brittleness, the foxing of old pages a sign of passing years like wrinkles on skin. Archivists conserve materials: they use cotton tape and special quality glue, twine and tweezers and brushes and yes, microspatulas, to fix damage, prolonging the life their chronically ailing patients. Some of the materials I sought for were not available because they were scheduled for conservation, others I encountered because they were on exhibit:
Contrasting video of rehearsal and performance, showing costumes with photographs of stagings, posters and film stills, and displaying a wealth of manuscript materials like diaries and letters, the current gallery exhibit celebrates the life of Jerome Robbins, after whom the Dance Collection of the library is named. As with previous exhibitions, most of the objects shown are from this library’s collections, and many have never been shared with the general public. Although the exhibit cannot be as critical as a research might wish it to be, the selection of different kinds of things somehow emphasises the sheer range of what remains of a long career, if some of the sacrifices made on the altar of that career are only hinted at. At the same time, it draws attention to how finding out what is actually in the collections might require a degree of detective work simply because what is on the shelves and on display is merely a fragment of what is there in the vaults, and for those in the know to request and figure out.
No matter how much care one takes, after some time in the archives, one has breathed in dust that was once part of the archived object, but one has also touched where another has cared enough to turn this particular page – if a little too rapidly for the fibres that used to form a whole but due to their age simply came apart in that one flip of a careless finger. Digital versions of archival materials do not have this immediate materiality, not even to the degree of the object meticulously positioned in a display case. Reading a digital book lacks the smell of dead organisms used in conveying its message, just as a costume on a dummy lacks the movement of the dancer. The more yellowed and fragile the leaves, the more worn the fabric, the more they recall the turning of the season outside from summer to autumn – fall, in the old version of English still used in America. Archives are corporeal work: a few more hours of sitting in a chair in the cool, air-conditioned room, and my body aches like the book in front of me does not.
Outside, in the rain, leaves are falling.