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Letter From Atlanta: Telepathic Archive of Our Own

My obsession with archives arrived on August 28, 2005, as the social, cultural, environmental, and political disaster of Hurricane Katrina put into sharp relief whose lives and whose memories were protected. I fled New Orleans around two months later—when it was clear nothing was going to get better—and had the first of many meltdowns at the airport in Arkansas while a TSA agent tore apart my entire material life with characteristic bureaucratic callousness. Yeah, yeah, we had no papers; yeah, yeah, just doing their job, but I was inconsolable. In a bright pink backpack, I had a couple of cassettes and VHS tapes, one journal, a few photographs, a few books, and a week’s worth of underwear. These objects were the only proof I had existed, had lived, had cared about anything at all, and these people were tossing them on the counter like it was any other day. I had to be sedated before I could get on the plane. 

Since then, I have weighed and considered and pondered every object that has come into my life: every book, every paper. My correspondence is sorted by date and recipient, and most of it has been scanned and digitized. All of my instant photography is kept in archival-level protection folios; every book I own is stamped with my seal, the date I finished it, and the place where I was when I did so. To their bemusement and annoyance, my careful archival practices extend to others. A friend I exchange books with every year has to be reminded exactly how I want the annotation to be formatted—the date, his name, the location of our meeting—but every year indulges me. My aunt, a former phonetics teacher who maintains the sprawling Amussen archive, which stretches back to 1525, encouraged my personal archiving goals and even suggested that I apply to the New School for Library Sciences. I did not. 

Instead I spent more and more time reading about libraries, the Library of Congress classification system, the history of secret archives such as the Delta Collection, and what I found horrified me. Three corporations own most of our memories. The bibliographic classification system used most widely around the world was, like most colonial-era American systems, absolutely racist, sexist, and oppressive. I stopped taking pictures of things I cared about with my phone. I starting relying on datebooks instead of Google Calendar. I read Melissa Adler’s sophisticated and thrilling book Cruising the Library: Organizations of the Perversity of Knowledge and began to play games in the stacks using her suggested titles—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet  and Roderick A. Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black—as jumping off points. The game is fairly simple. By locating these two books, which are wide-ranging in subject matter and deal with identities nowhere near the cis white American narrative, you can observe what the library tells you about yourself, what it tries to encourage you to think.

Books by authors including Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Muhammad Ali on view inside For Keeps.

Is Sedgwick’s book filed under “Sex Crimes?” “Perversions?” Is it located next to books on conversion therapy? Is Ferguson’s book ghettoized into “African American Literature”? “Colored History?” How many “jumps”— connections to other books on different topics—do you have to go through to get to where you think the books should be properly categorized? It took me five jumps to get from Sedgwick to Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (another book that would be a good starting point for the game), and Aberrations in Black wasn’t even there. I have played this game in New York, Atlanta, and attempted it in Sweden, where the language difference made it impossible, even though they use the Library of Congress classification system as well. 

This game reveals the personalities, foibles, and desires of the people who work in the library, the people who use it, and the library itself. Bookstores function much in the same way, compounded by the headache of capitalism, which does not lend itself to my ultimate pleasure, what Susan Howe calls the “spontaneous particulars”: the accidental discoveries, the mis-picked books for research, the holiness and eroticized silence of the library, the abrupt violence of learning you have been wrong about some given fact for your whole life. 

Read more about For Keeps, Rosa Duffy’s magical bookstore, up now at Burnaway.

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