July 1, 2010

You Can't Take it With You

This summer has been a touch busy for me.

I won’t bore you with all the personal details, but suffice to say what was looking like a long summer of nothing suddenly and magically turned into “oh god oh god where did I put my head, I think I left it at my other job.”

One of the three jobs I am working this summer is as an archival assistant.  Here is a classic example of being in the right place at the right time.  I am not an archivist.  I am not a library scientist.  I am an English major (so at least I know how to use a library) and I do work at a theatre.  When said theatre realized that it had an upcoming project which involved books, they looked at me and I said “sure, why not?”

For anyone who has some romanticized notion about archives, what they are, how they are useful and how they are made, you are only partially correct.  Yes, my job does involve a sort of Indiana Jones style treasure hunt through the bowels of the New Jersey Institute of Technology looking for material about, around or related to Jim Wise (google him, I dare you, there’s just about nothing on this guy... he wrote the mildly successful Off-Broadway spoof musical Dames at Sea and apparently was also heir to the Wise potato chip fortune… whoda thunk?).  My job also involves a lot of dust, heavy lifting, phone calls to random administrative offices in an attempt to be allowed access to material, fruitless google searches, unreturned e-mails, tail-chasing meetings and iced coffee. 

Here’s the bottom line.  My job is to take a roomful of random stuff which once belonged to this dead guy and make some sense of it.  We have little to no information on the dead guy, almost everyone who knew the dead guy is now either also dead or no longer working for the university, and the stuff is piled precariously in no particular order on an unfinished floor of a building somewhere on the university campus.  We are only half certain that this floor has air conditioning (if it does, the climate control is absolutely unreliable).

All I can say is the work may be boring, tedious and infuriating at some times, but it is also fascinating.

Like you, I had never really heard of this man before working on the project.  I had some idea that my theatre was named after him, I saw his picture hanging in the hallway, but I couldn’t have told you much more about him.  What perhaps is the most exciting piece about it is the knowledge that, at the end of this road, I may be a leading expert in the field of Jim Wise.  There is almost no web presence for the man, there certainly isn’t any academic or biographic material written upon him, these are things that we are creating as we go.  In the creation, we are educating ourselves.  Once we have the programs, sheet music, sets, props, video interviews, personal effects, and overall piles of junk catalogued, inventoried and understood to some level, we will know more about Jim Wise than perhaps anyone else still alive.

It almost makes me want to write a paper on him.  Almost.

And yet… I feel as though what we are doing is, in some ways, a violation.  I mean, really, would you want a random graduate student digging through the junk they pull out of your office after you die?  How about cataloguing that junk and setting it on display for the world to see?  What if we find something in that pile of stuff that we just don’t want to know?  Is it our responsibility to tell people, or to keep the secret secret and protect the integrity of the man who signed our paychecks before gracefully pushing up roses?  And if he were better known (or more consequential in the grand scheme of things), would these questions matter more or less?

I’ll let you know if and when this all becomes relevant.  For now, all I can say is: word to the wise (as per usual, pun thoroughly intended): if you don’t want aforementioned random graduate students making these decisions about your own personal items, don’t leave an endowment large enough for your own theatre to any university.  And especially don’t write any influential pieces of music, drama, art or scholarship.

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