Why Archives Matter

Public fascination with archives continues to run high.

Every year this time, the Man Booker Award announces its list of nominees for this prestigious award for the best work of fiction in English from any country. This year’s Booker long list contains two novels that use archives not only as an essential plot device and metaphor, but also as a point of reference in the title.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Penguin Random House, 2019) is the story of a mother and father who are archivists of a sort, and their children, on a road trip across the U.S. collecting and recording as they travel. Each member of this family has at least one archival box that they fill with sound recordings, lists, memoirs, oral histories, transcriptions, maps, drawings, and photographs. As they make their way in their combined and individual journeys, their personal archives grow and merge with other primary materials in ways that suggest how profoundly each of us is linked to and extend the permanent public record. Luiselli writes, “I suppose an archive gives you a kind of valley in which your thoughts can bounce back to you, transformed.”

In The Testaments (Penguin Random House, 2019), Margaret Atwood revisits the dystopian theocracy of Gilead first created in her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments is comprised of various fictional archival transcriptions that (spoiler alert!) weave an account of the unraveling of Gilead. And not only do the personal histories that are the testaments make up the narrative of the novel, truths preserved in the “Bloodlines,” or archival history of Gilead, serve to alert the world to the corruption of that culture and lead to its downfall.

Atwood’s admiration for the power of archives is tempered by recognition of how easily history can be erased by disappearing the permanent record, especially in the era of digital preservation. Speaking from a hypothetical year 2197, she refers to, “The Digital Black Hole of the twenty-first century that caused so much information to vanish due to the rapid decay of stored data–coupled with the sabotage of a large number of server farms and libraries. . .”

Why this sudden popularity and awareness of the power of archives? I would suggest that the interest springs from a collective impulse and imperative to establish and preserve a permanent and indelible record. As we find ourselves in uncertain times when truth itself seems to become more subjective each day and once-authoritative sources of information are increasingly called into doubt, primary source materials are valued now more than ever. Many people today recognize that the answer to the question — posed in perhaps a year or ten or two hundred — “What really happened?” will depend on how well we preserve and protect the records of government and our public agencies today.

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission was founded by the State of Texas in 1909 (though there has been an official state library and archive since the beginning of statehood) and charged with preserving the records of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of Texas government. TSLAC takes seriously the charge to gather, preserve, protect, and make available the permanent record of the State of Texas now and for future generations.

October is Archives Month, a great time to learn more about rich world of archives and archival work. To find out more about the exciting work being done by our TSLAC archivists, visit our blog, Out of the Stacks at https://www.tsl.texas.gov/outofthestacks/

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