‘Wow,’ someone said to me the other day, after I’d finished telling him about my recent career transition from historical research to travel writing. ‘Sure beats sitting in the archives!’
Well, yes. And no.
Of course, I love traveling, and travel writing is a dream job. But – and if you didn’t already know I’m a huge nerd, you’re about to find out – I also happen to love sitting in the archives, sifting through old papers.
My interest in history has always been linked to my interest in travel. That’s not to say that I’m all about ruins and museums when I’m on the road. But whether I’m up to my elbows in dusty manuscripts or sitting on a park bench in a Venetian campo eating pizza, I’m learning about our crazy world and the people that inhabit it.
Once, working on a report about the history of Canadian-Caribbean economic relations, I came across a file folder from the Canadian trade commissioner to Barbados in the early 20th century. The folder contained only the briefest correspondence: a request for permission to clean out an old filing cabinet after a staff change-over – and then, a note from Ottawa: permission granted.
Just like that, 24 years of correspondence between a young Canada and a colonial Barbados was destroyed.
I may have left professional archival work behind for now, but stories like that still give me chills – and not in a good way. I think our connections to the past can be just as important for global understanding as our connections to each other, and I’ve never really understood how anyone can see this stuff as disposable.
Archival preservation is a pretty obscure cause, and it’s always nice to see it getting a bit of attention in the mainstream media. This week, Slate’s Alex Heard reports on the FBI’s routine disposal of invaluable historical documents.
Eeesh. I just got those chills again.