Purloined letters, or, working in an archive collection

Purloined letters, or, working in an archive collection

See also ‘The day of small things

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘Purloined letters, or, working in an archive collection’ Whites Writing Whiteness http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/purloined-letters-or-working-in-an-archive-collection/ and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

purloined11. ‘The Purloined Letter’ is a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, in which a letter with explosive content is stolen and hidden and relentlessly searched for but not found; however, it is eventually realised by one of those seeking it that the letter has all the time been in plain sight, popped into a letter-rack by the thief and not seen though often looked at because a letter among letters. The purloined letter is a private one and its content scandalous only if revealed publicly; but on show in public as a letter among letters, it is more thoroughly hidden and privy than when a private communication. And when its location – which is not a hiding-place in the literal sense of the term – becomes apparent, it is the place in which it is deposited and the manner of its discovery, not its specific content, which are the focus of attention.

2. This idea of the purloined letter offers an interesting metaphor for thinking about some aspects of working in an archive and on a collection. The researcher too is looking for a ‘something’ which is both in plain sight – all those ranges of archive boxes and mountains of letters and other papers which can be deposited with terrifying regularity to the researcher’s desk; and also thereby difficult to find – it’s like a needle in a haystack! but, is it a really needle or in fact something else we should be looking for?

3. The metaphor extends. The letters in the researcher’s case are always purloined. We are never (or only very very rarely) their intended reader. Initially purloined by the workings of time and stolen away from their place ‘in life’ and deposited elsewhere, they are purloined again by our investigations of them. The researcher is complicit, willingly and mindfully complicit.

4. The metaphor stretches just a little further. The focus is on the letter purloined and recovered and the manner of its finding. Those who had it stolen from them, the thief and the detective, and also the unnamed narrator, are necessary background to the foreground of the unforced and forced travels and resting place of the letter. This is not an ethnography in an archive with the focus of attention on the narrator and their meta-narrative of detective/researcher and their relationship to the thief, the letter-writer and its intended recipient.  It is a puzzle – where is it, how to find it, what does it mean, and what exactly is the ‘it’ in this case? The metaphor now gives way, having done its work. Taking the ideas further requires some stuff, stuff like buildings and libraries and their contents.

5. The London Missionary Society (LMS) collection is housed in the comfortingly solid building of the Archives and Special Collections department of the Library of SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London. The prosaic and some not so prosaic information about this follows.

6. Finding the archive: Its usual opening days and times are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9am to 5pm (closed Wednesdays). But best check in advance. Contact information and address: SOAS Library, Thornhaugh purloined2aStreet, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG. The web address is http://www.soas.ac.uk/library/

7. Finding the LMS collection and specific parts of it: There is an overall inventory outlining the major elements in the structure of the LMS collection. This can be found via the Archives and Special Collections webpages – go *Our collections/Key collections, *Missionaries & missionary organisations, *London Missionary Society collection, *View the collection overview, then (halfway down) click *Document, CWM public guide. All these pages, as well as the public guide, are extremely helpful; but even the guide – weighing in at 158pp – just scratches at the large LMS surface.

8. In addition, accessible only in the Reading Room, there is a whole shelf filled with green hard-covered more detailed LMS finding aids. Each of these provides detailed information, often right down to listing and summarising the contents of some sections of the collection. There are two very hefty volumes for ‘South Africa’, and others for ‘Matabeleland 1835-1899’ and ‘Rhodesia 1900-1940’, recognising changes in the configuration of southern African countries and states over the time-span of the entire LMS collection (1764-1967).purloined3a

9. The CWM (Christian World Mission, but still the LMS) public guide needs to be read and to accompany all research visits either in paper format or on computer/I-Pad. The other finding aids also need to be read and digested, for they can only be used in situ, and a working knowledge of what each contains is likely to be important. This is because, even if one country/territory is the focus of interest, nonetheless, on the ground, the territories of southern Africa were for many years not divided up according to the colonial states (South Africa, Rhodesia etc) which subsequently came into being; and consequently people and activities often flowed across later organisational divisions and sub-divisions and which the SOAS archive inherited from the LMS.

purloined4a10.  Taking just one of these, the Matabeleland component, it is salutary as well as instructive to contemplate what lies within. Therein are things that are listed, boxed and also in folders; things that are categorised, in an order, an overall schema with specified divisions and sub-divisions; things that are neatly orderly, described and in summary form interpreted. There is little dust, and no sign of an imperialist ruling archival presence, not even when the boxes and folders are laid open and the individual contents examined closely.

11. Instead what is revealed are the remains of a large, complex, well-run international body, managed and controlled from the London metropole, but having many peripheries each composed by disparate self-willed God propelled missionary-employees. The finding aids provide small, provisional and ‘for now’ glimpses of these other people, other lives, times and places, glimpses which can be pursued further into this complicated picture-less jigsaw of interlocking pieces, not all of which may be traceable or indeed exist.purloined 5a

12.  However, while the dust might have settled at an organisational level, specifically the level of filing the huge composing number of documents, the documents themselves bear many traces of something unsettled, both because always glimpsed in process, and also because strong feelings were often at work. Much of the vast working practices of the LMS took the form of letters to and from the metropolitan Directors, the Director in southern African (Dr John Philip) and individual LMS missionaries. These letters with regard to southern Africa are a continuous flow from 1799 to 1950 and provide an unfolding record which is always in medias res, always in the midst of things. There was often a considerable time gap between the heat of letters being written, and the cooler experience of reading and replying to them. The travels of letters took time. On the part of the LMS Directors and its governing committees, their letters inquired, instructed, requested, cajoled and always in expectation of reply because such correspondence was built into how the organisation worked and something which its missionaries signed up to. On the part of the individual missionaries, letters from them to the Directors/LMS were required as regular reports on the state of their mission and of their souls, but they also feature claims and disputes with the LMS expressed to or through the Directors, the rehearsal or repetition of arguments with God about their ‘calling’, expositions of disputes between missionaries who were Brethren in the sense of being expected to work together in a particular area or location, and much else. They were a passionate, quarrelsome, disputatious lot.

13. Where are we as researchers, with these purloined letters, these mountains of documents which are primarily letters? The things we work on are always purloined – they don’t belong to us, we were never intended to read them, they were (usually) private and not public in character – and they have been popped in the archival equivalent of a letter-rack, a public archive to which Anyone and Everyone can have access but rarely do. What we find – the particular purloined letter or letters we arrive at – is a product in part of how we are led to look by all those helpful finding aids, but also by ignoring them and following one damn thing after another rather than by following archival order.

14. As for what it means – well, that’s up to us of course. But there is something curiously omnipresent here. These purloined letters certainly tell of deaths, adultery, stolen goods, derelictions of duty, punishments by God, miscegenation, organisational failure, good, evil and more, all loudly claiming and proclaiming referential force. These are the things that take the eye and seductively (and perhaps misleadingly) engage the mind. However, what is in plain sight but often not seen is the sheer ordinariness of it all. These multifarious contents in fact overwhelmingly tell of the patterns and routines of the ordinary life of that particular organisation. The mountains of routines and their traces here and there, now and then, are sometimes but not that often cross-cut, as life sometimes is, by the scandalous in the crevasses between.

Last updated: 12 April 2015


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