Allen Ginsberg and the Power of Archives

I recently read this article about the Allen Ginsberg collection at Stanford, which I saw on Twitter, and was really struck by several things about it.

The first was the description of how thinking about his personal collection inspired Ginsberg himself to become more interested in photography:

Morgan, [Ginsberg’s personal archivist] who spent 20 years cataloging Ginsberg’s materials, said the organization process spurred Ginsberg’s interest in photography.

In the early years of their working relationship, Morgan continually came across unidentified photos as he pored through boxes upon boxes of Ginsberg’s ephemera. Morgan nagged Ginsberg to identify the people in the photos, and when Ginsberg finally started to review them, Morgan said, Ginsberg realized his images “were not only the history of the people he knew” but were also “kind of good works of art.”

So Ginsberg, who had taken about 1,200 photos before he put photography on the back burner in the early 1960s, consulted his friend and photographer Robert Frank on photography techniques, and between 1982 and his death in 1997 took “the other 78,800 photographs,” Morgan said.

I have occasionally heard about archives providing inspiration for artists, but I haven’t heard before about a person’s own records inspiring them in this way.  I love the idea that paying attention to one’s own records can be the impetus for opening up new avenues in someone’s life. As personal archiving is becoming more prominently discussed, and not only for people as prominent as Ginsberg, I hope we will hear more about these kinds of unexpected inspirations.

One of the things I love about that anecdote is that it reminds us that archival records are much more than just historical evidence (as important as that is).  Which brings us to the second thing I loved about this article: its acknowledgement of the emotional power of archival records.

[Special Collections librarian] Taormina especially remembered a patron who came in to see the original Howl manuscript.

“He sat quietly in the back and when I walked the room I noticed that he was quietly weeping.” That kind of response, she said, “is not common in our reading room and I will most likely always remember it.”

Documents can be powerful repositories of meaning and emotion.  While such responses may not be common in reading rooms, I have felt them myself when working with records, and I think many other archivists could say the same.  Archives can and should do more to allow reactions such as that man’s to occur, to not wall our collections off from emotional responses.  I don’t know exactly how we can do that, but I believe it is important.  By opening our repositories to the feelings invoked by our records, we can do away with the stereotype of archives as dusty and lifeless, encouraging more people to engage with archives.  And wouldn’t that be a great thing for all of us?

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