Archives in the News: The "Lost" Letters of JM Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
One of the many common misconceptions of the archives that journalists and some scholars like to play into is the idea that there are things to be "discovered," that items are "lost" to history because they've been locked away or forgotten in some random box until a Johnny-come-lately researcher/historian brings them to our attention. In other words, the labor of archivists is shunted aside in order to craft a narrative that relies on stereotypes of neglect and ignorance, thus boosting the superhuman powers of observation and skillful deduction of those uncovering hidden historical materials.
It's bullshit and it devalues the skills, time, and labor of archivists or anyone working within a knowledge and information based institution.
An article recently published in the Guardian focuses on the "discovery" of correspondence between writers JM Barrie (Peter Pan) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island). "Discovered" by Scottish literature lecturer Dr. Michael Shaw of the University of Stirling at Yale University's Beinecke Library, the letters reveal an intimate friendship developed over mutual and intense admiration, romantic implications, and real world fanfiction between the two. Surprising no one, a book is forthcoming about this exchange of letters.
Within the article, however, are plenty of not-so-subtle digs at the archives where Shaw "uncovered" the letters. In the second paragraph we get this lovely sentence:
...the lost letters of JM Barrie to Robert Louis Stevenson – missing for over a century – have been found in a cardboard box in a library archive
I want to be clear: the letters were never "lost," nor were they "missing." As JUArchivist points out on Twitter, the letters were noted in the finding aid at the Beinecke Library that's available online and was created in 2009. The only thing that's changed in the last decade is someone found a way to profit off of the correspondence between two well known authors of beloved works of fiction. That's it. To even suggest that Shaw "stumbled" upon the letters in some rickety old box hitherto unknown by anyone with eyes capable of reading words is disingenuous and shows a complete lack of respect and knowledge of what actually goes into creating archival collections on the part of the article's author, Donna Ferguson.
Hey, Donna? Donna! The letters are stored in acid free file folders in acid free boxes because paper degrades over time. Saying the materials were stored in cardboard boxes like they were thrown into a moving box that developed a case of the cobwebs is really offensive considering those boxes and files are designed to preserve those letters so scholars can come along and profit off of them from time to time.
And by only talking about the woeful conditions of the letters' discovery, Donna, you've neglected to mention the staff responsible for accessioning, processing, describing, and making those letters accessible. By omitting them from your little scholar triumphant narrative, you paint an entire staff of people as ignorant at best and incompetent at worst. Did you know, Donna, that archivists have enough problems proving the value of their work, as well as negotiating a salary that reflects their labor, without articles like this making them look like idiots for not noticing the "importance" of Barrie's letters to Stevenson. If you're so eager to write fiction, Donna, I suggest looking into a writing agent and prepare your elevator pitch.
Am I upset? Yeah, I am. I've talked about this before on the website as well as during interviews. When no one knows what you do, then a lot of assumptions are made that make their way into pieces of media or news that paint an unflattering picture. Archivists are either invisible or vilified and in the case of this article from the Guardian, we're essentially both.