The Personal Archive

There are only 6 pages left in my journal. There used to be about 300 smooth, creamy, unlined pages in that leather-bound notebook given to me by good friend and classmate on the day of our college graduation. As I’m nearing the end of this collection of stories, I’ve begun to read over my thoughts on the events, travels, worries, stunted romances, people, achievements and losses that mark my life since September 2007. But in recollecting all that has happened since my senior year of college, I realized the process of piecing together my life is less simple than reading one journal. There’s another leather-bound notebook to be perused, a few word documents that acted as a diary while I was in the library working on papers, a series of digital photo albums, and blogs.

For most of the academic projects I undertake, personal and family papers are the core of my research. Thinking back on my work on Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940), I spent hours rummaging through her tremendous archive of hand written notebooks and letters – correspondences scribbled on small bits of paper, filled to the corners with words so as not to be wasteful, years and years of personal finances diligently kept in ledgers, photographs and sketchbooks. Her published writings and her manuscripts — all there for me to handle and read. But the personal archive is changing. Should my personal papers one day end up in MoMA’s library, handwritten notebooks and printed photographs will be in the minority.

Today, while there are still journals to be filled with ink (and fill them I will), there are word documents, facebook albums, blogs and flickr. The personal archive is no longer purely a paper trail.

I wonder — does this means our archives have become more personal (think of how much more we can record thanks to technology)? There’s something about a handwritten page and a carefully selected photo that speaks more about an individual than a typed or airbrushed digital document. But then again, thanks to digital, we get to archive more of our life…

I pity the poor grad student who writes her dissertation about me.

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