Keynote by David Sutton: Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century

This weekend I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium hosted by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. It was a tremendous opportunity to be with such an eminent group of academics, archivists and curators, all gathered together to present their experiences and views and engage in a dialogue about literary archives, and in particular, the direction of literary archives in our increasingly digital age. I am grateful to all those who worked to put on the event as well as to the speakers, many of whom traveled from Canada and the UK.

I will write more about the various panels, but right now I just want to address the keynote, delivered by David Sutton (Director, Research Projects, University of Reading Library), titled ”The Destinies of Literary Manuscripts: Past, Present and Future.”

David Sutton

David Sutton

Sutton did an excellent job of placing the collection and preservation of literary manuscripts in a historical context. He placed the beginning of literary manuscripts around the year 1700 (pretty recent in the scheme of things), and ascribed this to an elevation in the status of writers, epitomized by world’s first copyright act passed in England in 1709, and also because of changes in the publishing industry which elevated the status of publishing houses. He notes that poetry manuscripts were initially more valued than fiction and were thus more commonly preserved prior to the 18th ct, when fiction manuscripts began to be actively preserved. Lawrence Sterne is perhaps the earliest British fiction writer for whom we have surviving manuscripts; earlier examples are rare and have often survived by circumstance rather than due to action on the part of a librarian or collector.

Sutton articulated many of the qualities that differentiate literary manuscripts from other manuscript types. Significantly, literary manuscripts offer insight into the act of creation on the part of the writer. The manuscripts of Marcel Proust contain a fascinating intersection of form and content, and this intersection is valuable and also distinguishes literary manuscripts from archives in general, whose materials tend to be valuable primarily for their content. Literary manuscripts typically have a higher monetary value than other manuscript types (due to being highly collectible), and there is also a curious tendency for  author’s papers to be split amongst multiple institutions (which can require extensive cross-referencing amongst materials housed thousands of miles apart). The US, UK, Canada and France are the only countries to regularly collect archives of non-nationals, which can result in a writer’s papers ending up quite far away from where the writer actually lived and wrote.

The crux of Sutton’s discussion was that the future of literary manuscripts is more uncertain now than ever before. It is hard to predict the form that literary archives will take going forward — most archives already contain some digital material and in the future many author archives may be entirely digital. For one thing, it is likely that digital objects will be less attractive to collectors than paper objects. I think this is partly due to the maintainence the objects require, as well as the fact that digital objects lack the physical qualities that make books or letters so attractive as display objects. There is uncertainty as to how to assess the value of digital objects (according to Sutton, when auction houses sell hybrid literary archives, they value the archive based on the paper content and the digital material is just sort of thrown in). There is also a question about how scholars and critics will use digital literary archives in the future, and a concern that digital archives which are costly to maintain will draw fewer users. One reason that digital literary archives may be less appealing to scholars (who, for example, may wish to study the progress of a work through a writer’s various drafts) because of the issue of authenticity with born digital materials. Certainly new skills and training will be required. Sutton notes that there is no existing model for sensitizing users to the proper use of these archives, and suggests that there will need to be an enhanced role for archivists in the teaching process going forward.

On a final note, he mentioned something that came up frequently throughout the symposium: the UK-based GLAM (Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts) which also has a North American spinoff — GLAMNA. I joined the GLAMNA listserv as a way to keep up with upcoming events, etc.

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