These Ghostly Archives: power, politics and silences
by Gail Crowther
The first archive I visited was the BBC Written Archives Centre in Reading, England. Peter had asked me to look at some material on his behalf. We had already exchanged emails about Peter’s archival work, particularly at Smith College, which holds one of the largest Plath collections in the world. Peter had shared his enthusiasm for handling the Ariel poem manuscripts and early drafts of The Bell Jar, as well as personal possessions such as pieces of painted furniture, trinkets, and correspondence. While I was aware that Peter was an archivist by profession, I could also tell that there was something different going on with his engagement with Plath material. I didn’t know at this stage about ‘archive fever’ or how when you work with materials in an archive, time dissolves around you.
Over the coming years we worked separately (but on each other’s behalf) in a number of different archives – and only once on a joint trip to Smith College in the summer of 2011. The nature of these visits changed as we realised we could utilise the fast-paced technology that was developing. In 2008 we would email each other as soon as the archive visit was over, type up notes, and send on as soon as possible. Today, we can WhatsApp while we are actually in the archive and, if allowed, take photographs and share documents with an immediacy that often makes me feel I am there, albeit virtually. This immediacy can be helpful if we stumble across an ethical issue, or if we make an exciting find that we cannot wait to share. Both of these scenarios we discuss in our book, in particular decisions that have to be made regarding whether to publish certain things or not. We tend to err on the side of caution, especially if stories involve other people who are still alive. The archive can be a place of exposure and sometimes people get drawn into a story via secondary sources when they have personally chosen to keep their silence.
Missing archives, lost archives, in many ways are the mostly ghostly of all – certainly elusive, but still holding out promise. And that in many ways is the power of the archive – the story is never fully told and it is a story that we may one day know, or not.
the publisher, Amazon.co.uk, Book Depository, and other websites.
These Ghostly Archives will be published in the United States on 3 October 2017.
All links accessed 9 and 12 May 2017.