Since conservators work to prolong the life of physical things, they think a lot about artifactual value, or the information held in the material and craft of a physical object. This thinking can be puzzling for lab visitors and the general public, who sometimes conceptualize books and archival materials simply as information carriers. Bridging the conceptual gap between these two methods of thinking is one of the fundamental challenges of conservation outreach. After all, the casual observer often notes, why not just digitize collections and be done with them?
The many significant complexities of digitization aside, it’s good to have some concrete examples of artifactual value in hand for cases like this. I accidentally stumbled across one such example recently while reading Erik Larson’s portrait of late 19th century Chicago, Devil in the White City. In a brief afterword, Larson described his research methods and his portrayal of the mentally unstable assassin Patrick Prendergast:
I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet. I need physical contact with my sources, and there’s only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story. There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness. On one visit to the Chicago Historical Society, I found the actual notes that Prendergast sent to Alfred Trude. I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper.
-Erik Larson, Devil in the White City, Notes and Sources, pp 395-96.
Prendergast’s notes to prosecutor Trude were made during a period of increasing delusion, during which Prendergast murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison. They offer an immediate, tangible example of artifactual value, the deep pencil marks enhancing our understanding of Prendergast’s increasingly paranoid state. Larson’s remarks also demonstrate the impact of artifactual value on researchers and library patrons, who make discoveries in person that are likely not possible online or via reproduction. His statement powerfully endorses primary research and the value of physical artifacts in libraries and archives.