“Kathleen Blake Yancey on archive robustness” by Michael Neal et al. (Kairos 17.3 Topoi)


So a robust archive. It is amusing and ironic
that you put this question to me because I think that this is that question at some level,
explicitly or otherwise, that you and Katie and Michael are dealing with, with the assistance
of undergraduate interns like Nicole. So, I don’t think robust has a given definition.
Robust could be a collection that’s very narrow in scope, let’s say it totally focused
on the single-backed card. So, it went from 1873 to 1907. So, it’s not giving the history
of postcards, that’s in the U.S. The dates are somewhat different around the world. Well,
the beginning of postcards actually has a longer history in Europe. You could do something
that’s smaller in scope, but that had a lot of depth to it, obviously. Or, you could
do something that’s much larger in scope, and you might have as much depth to it. But,
it would take you longer to get there. So, that’s one way to think about it in terms
of time. Another way to think about it is in terms of type. As you all know, I think,
better than I, there are many many types of postcards and those are types that are given
types, I would say, rather than what people did with them. So, for instance, you could
have a type called “Birthday Postcards” and version A would be a birthday postcard
that is printed by the publisher and Version B would be a postcard that actually looks
like it’s a tourist postcard, let’s say, but it is turned into a birthday postcard.
So, that would be another way of imagining a robust archive. Another, and I’ve hinted
at this now, does one want an archive of unmarked postcards? Or, does one want an archive of
written postcards? Does one want an archive of stamped postcards? So, the categories proliferate.
I guess what i think robust means in this context then, is that you have sufficient
“N” that you can make some generalizations about what you see. That is to say, you have
— and actually, thinking a lot about this relative to this sabbatical project that I’m
engaged in called The Way We Were: A Cultural History of Vernacular Writing in 20th Century
America, that’s a working title — one of the things that I’ve struggled with is basically
the same issue because there’s no archive of everyday writing. There’s a national
archive, there are archives in state governments, there are archives in museums, there are archives
in libraries, there are archives in universities, there are archives in non-profits, there are
lots of different archives. But, there’s no archive of everyday writing. So, what constitutes
an archive is one questions. And, then one way to think about the robust issue — the
adjective — is to think I think in terms of a corpus. But, not that’s actually a
corpus coming from linguistics. But, what constitutes a corpus at some level it’s
a questions about end, what’s critical mass is another way to put it. The number of postcards
that were mailed in the early 1900s was millions and millions. So, you’re not going to track
all those down. I think you have to have, again, enough to allow you to make some generalizations.
And if you have that enoughness, if you will, then you can begin to talk even when a category
doesn’t have a lot of critical mass. So, for instance, this postcard which I did pick
up in Australia was published in Hong Kong, does attend to document storm damage in 1926.
So, I think we can presume that this is moving on to almost a hundred years old. That’s
pretty interesting. In all the postcards I’ve seen, I’ve not seen one that has this kind
of a back. That’s interesting. It’s not, how many more of these do I have to collect
in order to say that it’s interesting? I don’t think so many more. And the other
part of this maybe is that if you have enough of a robust archive, then, when you come across
something that’s anomalous, which is basically what I’m pointing to here, it raises the
question about whether it is anomalous. Maybe in fact, postcards that were published in
Hong Kong at this moment in time do look like this. So, that would suggest that, if that’s
the case, that there’s a whole nother category that we include in the archive. Even if it’s
a category that’s not well populated, as it were. It’s still a category that helps
us begin to understand something about the genre itself. So there’s an interesting
tension here, two tensions. One between the archive as it’s constructed and what you
find and how that talks back to the archive so that the archive is a living archive and
continues to grow and develop as the research continues. But, the other has to do with postcards
in different cultural contexts and how they, undoubtedly, are going to look very different,
even at the same time that they look something of the same. This one, for instance, does
have a set of lines for presumably an address, and a box which is presumably for the stamp
while it takes a vertical orientation. So, that’s pretty interesting. In other words,
at the same time that you’re plotting difference, you’re doing it in a context of what is
also similar.

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