A Welcome to the Annual Meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archivists

Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse
April 19, Towson, Maryland

Good morning!

I see Leonard Rapport is here. He and I shared a room at the first of these conferences in Wilmington. I didn't get any sleep that night because Leonard is an insomniac, but I learned a lot, as I always do from Leonard.  Indeed, he gave me my start in Archives, but that is another story, and I have been given strict instructions from Susan to be brief.

Happy Birthday, almost. From an organizational standpoint, you will be 30 years old in June. Considering that that is the probable median age of the active members of this organization, I feel somewhat like a mummified Jeremy Bentham being rolled out to attend one of the dinners held in his name at University College London.

Bentham left a unique archives, his papers which document his illustrious career as a philosopher who spent his whole life trying to get humanity to look beyond the basics, and himself, the remains of which became an Archivist's nightmare. His preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes and surmounted by a wax head resides in a wooden cabinet display called the Auto Icon in the main building of the University College London. Bentham intended that his head should be part of the auto-icon, and for ten years before his death (so legend has it) he carried around in his pocked the glass eyes that were to adorn it. Unfortunately, when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive. The wax head was therefore substituted, and for some years the real head with its glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham's legs.

However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from King's College London, and it frequently went missing, turning up on one occasion in a luggage locker at Aberdeen station. The last straw came when it was discovered at the front quadrangle being used for football practice. There after, it was removed to the College [archives] vault, where it remains to this day.

(see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project). (Source: http://econ.la.psu.edu/~dvk106/Bentham.pdf)

How do I know all this? From the web, of course. Indeed most of the information that people seem to crave these days is at least initially derived from the web. As Peter Jennings pointed out the other night, Google.com is a phenomena that has few peers: a successful dot.com that employs a mere 300 people and receives 500 resumes a day from people seeking employment.

Indeed, I thought it might be interesting to ask google to find the main sites that addressed your theme today: Beyond the Basics. In second place came "Beyond the Basics: An Automotive Encyclopedia," which instantly reminded me of a book review I am late in submitting by a scholar who spent her graduate career at Yale, took time off to confront the real world as a auto mechanic, and then got down to basics to write a very good book on the influence of Small Pox on American history which she called Pox Americana.

But I digress. The top of the google hit list for "beyond the basics" was a site called : WWW: Beyond the Basics. which is a draft book written by a class at Virginia Tech about the World Wide Web . Just as I was getting interested in what the class was about (I would recommend you spend some time at the site), a little screen popped up asking me who was the lead singer of Nirvana?  How many know? I was given choices, Shannon Noon, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Ian Curtis, and Ed Papenfuse. I suppose you all know the answer, Kurt Cobain, but I had to go back to Google to find out. There, I found that my 87 year old father-in-law's heartthrob, Courtney Love, was once Kurt Cobain's partner and that they had a child, Frances Bean.

It is easy to get distracted on the web. It is almost as bad as archivists on Listservs. But permit me to return to today's theme: Beyond the Basics, and to welcome you to Maryland on an auspicious day: Patriots Day, April 19. In 1775, on this day, the shot heard round the world was fired. In 1861, on this day, the first blood of the Civil War was shed on Baltimore's streets as the Massachusetts troops tried unsuccessfully to move unscathed from President's Street Station to Pratt Street Station on their way to defend Washington. In 1995, tragedy struck Oklahoma City. Subsequently, a memorial was built and web site launched to keep the memories fresh of what happened that day, but, interestingly enough, nothing on the web site tells you succinctly about what happened, how it happened, and when it happened.

Everything, of course, that we remember about the importance of this day, is overshadowed by another day in September, but the message is the same. As archivists we are charged with keeping the the meaning of the collective memory alive in world that is fast becoming almost too fragile for us to handle. Instead of the tangible objects of paper and even more esoteric artifacts like Jeremy Bentham's skull that we are called upon to care for and make known, if not accessible, we face extraordinary challenges ahead with regard to holding on to our knowledge of the past.

Last fall, I had the privilege of addressing a group of archivists in the interior of China. The metaphor that I used to conclude my remarks was drawn from a poem that Chairman Mao copied in his unique style of calligraphy and which is engraved on a stone monument at the entrance to a dark alley in Nanjing named after the Confucian scholars that once lived there: The poem is about the swallows nesting in the eaves of the rich who leave their safe and secure world to create their nests in the eaves of the poor. The information revolution, as manifested today in the World Wide Web, in many ways is like the swallows spreading out into the countryside to nest in the eaves of the citizenry at large.

More people than ever can learn about what we have in our collections and what it all means, but, like the mud and straw homes the swallows build, the electronic world is fragile and easily destroyed. Still, as archivists we must venture forth from the safe havens of the small and tactile collections which largely form the basis of what you care for to the larger, darker uncertain world of finding and maintaining the principal source of what we know about ourselves today, tomorrow, and in the future: the electronic information sources of today, ignoring the distractions, and focusing on the essentials, building our little homes of clay and straw (known as electronic archives) and working together to ensure that they remain intact and undisturbed by perverse chief information officers, their legions of employees more interested in Nirvana and their music than preserving the unique electronic record of the governor's daily work log, and the vicissitudes of life with an NT server.

You can go too far with metaphors.

Permit me to close my welcome with some advice from Jeremy Bentham, slightly altered to fit the times: Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words [men and women] may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality [they] will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light. (Source: http://econ.la.psu.edu/~dvk106/Bentham.pdf)

May your efforts rear the fabric of felicity, may sense prevail over sound, reason over caprice, and light over darkness, in all that you do as archivists. The future of knowing who we are and what we did on this day, and any other that was worthwhile, is in your hands.

Thank you