© 2016 Joseph Heathcott

Notes on
Archival
Practice

There’s no doubt about it, I have Archive Fever.*  I am obsessed by the relationship of the things we collect, store, and retrieve on the one hand to how we construct, display, and perform our identities on the other.   But at a more basic level, I am just in love with objects--with the thingness of things.  How could you not love these dusty material remnants that travel to us from other times and places?

 

The archive is at once an epistemology--a way of viewing the world--and at the same time it is a material fixture, comprising texts, objects, information, points of access, rituals of circulation, and designed spaces and flows.  Whether open-source or closed to prying eyes, analogue or digital, the archive is a mentalité that conditions its material form.  It is a catalogue of desires, awash in the presence of the past but also haunted by absent voices

 

While I am not a professional archivist (and I greatly admire those who are), I’ve devoted a significant amount of my research, teaching, and practice to archival questions.  My love of archives goes back to childhood, when in the summer my family would spend the day in the library to cool down.  When I was 12 or13, I learned how to use a microfilm reader, and I began reading newspapers, tax rolls, land maps, and census records from the nineteenth century.  By the time I was 16, I had traced my family tree back five generations using the records at the beautiful Willard Library

 

In college I earned my keep in the Washington University Art and Architecture library (in a building designed by Fumihiko Maki), shelving books and reorganizing the architectural drawing flat files.  I loved unrolling the brittle pages of old blueprints for faculty and visiting researchers.  My first job in graduate school was a research position at the William Hammond Mathers museum at Indiana University.  I worked in the collections department, where I spent most of my time researching and cataloguing thousands of lantern slides and glass plate negatives from the late nineteenth century.

 

Since then, my archival practice has expanded beyond what I call the ‘parachute’ mode, where you generate a topic and then find the archives that yield information relevant for that topic.  While this approach remains an important part of my work, I am also interested in the ‘query’ mode--that is, using the archive itself as a point of departure for asking questions about the world.  I have been influenced in this respect by artists, scholars, and archivists such as Susan Hiller, Yinka Shonibare, Gordon Matta-Clark, Jennifer Ulrich, Alan Sekula, Okwui Enwezor, Carolyn Steedman, Rick Prelinger, Trevor Paglen, and Thomas Hirschorn.

 

I have also built collections.  From the 1980s until the early 2000s I amassed piles of materials from left and anarchist political networks, including magazines, broadsides, posters, bulletins, stickers, and other agitprop.  I donated these materials to Saint Louis University, where I taught at the time, and worked with the archivists there to develop the mass of stuff into a usable collection.  When we found a trove of artifacts in a wall cavity during a home renovation, I wrote about this “accidental archive” as a way to understand the lifeworld of the people who lived in our home some 100 years ago.  More recently, I have built up a collection of approximately 1000 postcards from the early twentieth century that depict cities and city life around the world.  I am working with students to build a database so that the collection can be made available online to scholars.

 

Over the years, it has been my privilege to undertake research in a wide variety of archives, official and unofficial, organized and makeshift.  While my archival practice has grown more rigorous and systematic, I still enjoy the random ramble through the collections and the meandering trace of lives through the documents.

 

Following are some of the archives where I have conducted research:

 

Chicago Historical Society

The British Library

Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme

St. Louis Circuit Court Records

New York Public Library

Missouri Historical Society

National Archives, Washington, DC

Western History Manuscript Collection

University of Illinois, Chicago Archive

Tate Britain Archives

The Mercantile Library

Willard Library and Archive

Building Arts Foundation

The Library of Congress

National Archive of Kenya

Kentucky Historical Society

New York City Dept. of Tax Records

Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Roosevelt Study Centre, Netherlands

Temple University Urban Archives

Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Zanzibar

National Archives, College Park, MD

Newberry Library

Records Office of Union County Kentucky

Washington University Special Collections

London School of Economics Archives

National Archives, Kansas City, MO

Brooklyn Historical Society

St. Louis Public Library Map Collection

Willard Carpenter Library and Archive

State Historical Society and Records of Missouri 

-----

* The term "Archive Fever" is a common English translation of Derrida's concept of "Mal d'Archive."  But Carolyn Steedman and others have argued that the more appropriate translation would be "sickness," to capture Derrida's sense of the archive as a conceptual space characterized by malaise, haunting, and death.  While I agree with Steedman, I like the ambiguity that the English translation introduces.