In a post a few weeks ago, I explored how certain archives appear horrific. I argued that certain archives are scary because their particular form of organization (or disorganization) is scary. This “archive horror” extends into another image — the image of the scary archivist. If the scary archive is that space that an experimental historian might unintentionally generate (the spaces of Soane, Eco, Collyer) then the scary archivist is that personae that lurks in these spaces (eg. Eco’s archivist above and Collyer below); it is the “subjective” product of unusual productions of history. We might probe this figure that lurks in literature and film as a potential subject for future projects and proposals related to experimental history.
The roots of the scary archivist can be traced to various figures in Greek mythology, particularly the mythological story of Medusa — the female guardian who turns the living into stone. She cannot interact with the living, and through the course of living increasingly surrounds herself with frozen representations of the world. The Medusa image moves through the scary archivist image in various ways. Like the Medusa, the abilities of scary archivists to capture the lived world are often related to their disabilities and disfigurements. They appear either as blind, wheelchair bound, obsessive compulsive, or horribly malformed. The scary archivist is often a woman who turns “men to stone” through a type of emotional ferocity. This particular (often misogynistic) image of archival guardians is partially captured in the whimsical site “Scary Librarians”.
Every historian builds an image of the archive, which also suggests that every historian invokes a type of archivist that manages this imaginary archive. The best archives are always a bit scary, and they always have (seemingly) intimidating (sometimes frightening) archivists. It’s what makes going to these places exciting and interesting; bringing the contents of these archives back into “the world” requires navigational skills and often-epic struggles with their keepers. The best histories emerge from these struggles. The best archives and archivists project a bit of fear to make this possible.