Silence in the Library

Naming is powerful. A name can be a gift or a burden. Choosing or discarding a name can make you feel free. A nickname can make you feel loved or crushed. What people call you shapes how you see yourself, and teaches you how to navigate the world. But the moment you name something, you limit the possibilities of what it can be. Librarians and archivists who catalog and describe collections have the great responsibility of choosing names for things that provoke interest and further understanding. We call this “creating access points” – little lights to guide you, from whichever direction you might approach. But what if the roads were built ages ago and are no longer passable? Or what if they lead in the wrong direction? The limits of language, particularly the specialized, slow-to-evolve jargon of cataloging librarians and archivists, can create more barriers than pathways. Naming a thing with the wrong words can cut off various paths; it can silence necessary questions. In a choose-your-own-adventure text, this would be the part where you would die, have to start over again and opt for a different route next time.

I’m an accidental archivist. I trained as a cataloging librarian, and my primary research interest was subject access for groups of people, specifically marginalized groups, in the catalog. I was studying radical librarians like Sandy Berman, who wrote a book in 1971 called Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Headings Concerning People.

He called out the Library of Congress Subject Headings for being outdated and offensive, noting that they can “only ‘satisfy’ parochial, jingoistic Europeans and North Americans, white-hued, at least nominally Christian (and preferably Protestant) in faith, comfortably situated in the middle and higher-income brackets, largely domiciled in suburbia, fundamentally loyal to the established order, and heavily imbued with the transcendent, incomparable glory of western civilization.”

Recommendations made by Berman influenced the Library of Congress to make changes to terms specifically related to people, including the deletion of the “see” reference to “Sexual perversion” from the headings “Homosexuality.” During this same time period, subject access was also a particular concern of the Task Force on Gay Liberation (now the GLBT Round Table) of the American Library Association—the first gay professional organization in the U.S. The library profession has a long history of working toward inclusion and representation, even while individual institutions may not. Note that, in the United States, we don’t have a National Library; the Library of Congress is our de facto national library, but its primary mandate is to serve government, not people.

book stacks

When we first learn to use a library, when we learn that we can look up books by subject, I think most of us end up looking for ourselves. Berman’s work, begun over 40 years ago, continues to inspire radical librarians to help people find themselves in the library, and the American Library Association has, for the most part, supported an agenda of inclusiveness and social responsibility. But the archives profession as we know it is relatively young, and standards for cataloging and providing access to archival collections are very new. (If you hear an archivist complain about “legacy collections,” she means, “Shit people did when no one knew what they were doing.”) It’s not that there isn’t overlap with librarians and archivists—an archivist is a librarian—but an archivist works with unpublished materials, items that may be unfinished or were not originally intended for the public, like letters or manuscript drafts. It can be so much more difficult to represent this kind of material in a catalog, but an archival collection is where you are most likely to find stories told by people in their own words. Archives are great places to find hidden histories—words by people of more races and genders than you see in mainstream media, or the canon, or whatever governing body calls the shots in your field.

learning to use a library

In her essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” Louise Glück writes, “I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence…. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum.” This resonates deeply with me as an archivist, particularly in caring for literary manuscript collections. As a professional archivist, I’m bound by a code of ethics, particularly in relation to history and memory. Our code states that “archival materials … serve as evidence against which individual and social memory can be tested. Archivists preserve such primary sources to enable us to better comprehend the past, understand the present, and prepare for the future.” The materials are trusted to my care, and the choices I make can help or inhibit someone’s ability to understand the story of a collection. But, in the same way that an art conservator will make sure that her work is visible, distinguishable from the original, my choice as to how I order and document a collection must also be visible. My work is a gesture toward the whole, a guide to suggest further conclusions and to hopefully inspire further inquiry. I understand that, ultimately, the story is not mine to tell; so it is my job not to make assumptions or extrapolate, but to erect guideposts—to light the little lights.

In thinking about archives with respect to sex, gender expression, race, and really any category in which people can be divided into “valued” and “unvalued,” or “default” and “deviant,” I think archives are a place where things don’t have to be resolved but can be allowed to speak in their urgent, messy, complicated, and honest ways. While the cataloger in me still loves the satisfaction of choosing the most precise subject term or creating the perfect catalog record, I also love the freedom and opportunity in archives to create room for myriad stories to be told in their own words. I think that’s a way for people to find themselves and their histories in a world that often denies their legitimacy or even their existence. The respect for and commitment to collective memory and individual stories are what make archival collections so valuable. And this is why I feel drawn to my work.

Marie Elia earned an MFA from Columbia University and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Girlhood and Machines (Dancing Girl Press, 2015), and is the archivist for the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo. Find her on Twitter at @marieelizabeth.

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