A Metron Reprint
1979, October 18, 1993, February 4, 1998
THE PERSONAL ARCHIVE:
ON RETRIEVING VALUABLE CULTURAL
by Alfred de Grazia
(* Copyright 1993 by Alfred de Grazia) The original proposal, here changed little, was in 1979.
Noticing the disintegration of the personal archives of one's deceased friends is an ordinary facet of the sadness of their passing. Of artists and scholars, of the creative class, it is said, "Their work lives on." But does it? If as much effort were put into carrying the effects of a creative mind into the future as is put into keeping it oxygenated for a few weeks longer, the American cultural heritage would be much the richer. Not that our proposition would be sharply for the one or the other. It is rather that much can be done to invent a low-cost socially beneficial system of managing intellectual estates, which would operate also to resolve the typical anxieties of creators and their intimates. The scenarios are well-known; I shall type them.
Nobody actually knows what is in the files, or could assess its value is he were to enter them, and, to tell the truth, don't want to do so. It is not only that the good Professor wrote incomprehensibly, but he didn't interest people; alive he was a bore. Too, his handwriting is incomprehensible. Besides, his intimates and associates know nothing of processing and retrieving information, of scholarly networks and outlets, of publishing, or of distribution.
Still, everyone puts in a little time, energy, money. Nothing happens. The publisher who holds a contract for a book on African Labor Problems thinks that he had a marginal deal at best with the live author and, after he views the formless manuscript, is sure of no deal with a dead one. The President and the new Dean are preoccupied; Professor Goodfellow just died of a heart attack, and, a month earlier, Dean Highrise bit the dust. They, too, left archives. "Can't we let the matter ride and meanwhile store the stuff in the Library basement?" they ask.
Professor Benfait's literary estate has cost his family conflict, guilt, and money, and brought small gratification. The same may be said of the University. Somehow, we feel, something less than the full public value of his testament has been realized.
How typical is this scenario? How large is the problem? I have made some preliminary estimates.
An average archive will contain a) books, articles, and clippings, organized topically; b)notes of lectures or on subjects and discoveries, including in some cases journals and interviews, often containing ideas that break new ground, c) finished or partially finished articles and studies in typescripts and increasingly now on floppy disks, that are: c1) suited for a small circle of specialists, c2) suited for academic publication, c3) can be completed for commercial publication, or are making the rounds of publishers or in process of being published, and d) correspondence and biographical documentation.
An examination according to their preferable and possible disposition would suggest a commercial publication of some portion, publication by an academic press of another part, a distribution to a network of perhaps 100 scholars of much of the material, retention and reproduction on demand of much more, and the division and advertisement of the rest as lots available free to persons interested in the topics discussed. An alternative, rapidly approaching, is to scan or word process the whole archive and let it be printed out upon request, or published on the Internet free and without recourse.
ANNUAL HERITAGE OF ARCHIVES
Estimates for the USA and the European Community
Outlets Average number pages/archive Great Substantial Small
Pages published before demise --3500-- 800-- 300
Suitable outlet for balance (pp)
1) Commercial publications-----1000 --200-- 20
2) Academic publication --------1500 --500--150
3) Research publication --------2000-- 800--500
4) Research depot reproduces--2000--1000--500
5) Gifts to workers in field -----5000--2000--1000
Numbers of cases per year
Archives left by deceased ------ 40-- 400-- 15,000
Volume of Material for
Processing (in pages)--------460,000 1,800,000 38,300,000
The speculative Table 1. above embraces literary archives, such as we have been describing and estimates their proportions, but ignores the important categories of creative art work, aesthetic and engineering designs, and musical compositions, which, pari passu, belong to the general scheme. Many creative expressions, such as musical and poetic compositions, architectural drawings, artistic sketches and even first-rate paintings, inventions, models, embroideries, and sculptures are destroyed or are stored unrecognized and unused. Not only the intelligentsia in the strict sense, but publicists, free-lance writers, civic and business leaders, and politicians (lately become statesmen) should be fitted to the overall plan of conservation for enjoyment, use and education.
It may be a fair guess that less than one-hundredth of the cultural heritage represented in the archives of the American creative class or intelligentsia is realized and transmitted presently.
The situation invites invidious comparison with the situation in the other "information and data" sectors of society, where huge expenditures and attention are given over to the trivial papers of business, government, and third sector institutions, including, need I say, universities. Thousands of acres of space, many millions of files, and trillions of pages are managed by thousands of employees. It is a bizarre expression, one of many, of the same society that spends on armaments enough to feed the world three square meals a day and clothe and house them, too, and that in some American States will spend up to sixty thousand dollars a year as the average cost of keeping a convict in jail.
Assuming that creative work has an estimable value -- but aren't we paying tens of thousands of professors and as many artists and leaders according to this assumption? -- the sum of all such creative values lost, not saved, in a decade must amount to billions of dollars. Too, "the wheel will be reinvented" countless times.
Should one take comfort in scepticism: "Isn't too much being published already?" Perhaps so. What is "too much"? A surfeit of trash, yes. Material delivered to the wrong users, yes. The right material to the right user in the right format at the right cost and price, no. Then occurs the question of whether better stuff than the current average output (which presumably could be increased at will) is being buried. Who is to say "better"? Often older scholars and artists are less pressed to produced, are more modest, and then finally diffident and discouraged. But the work is there awaiting, and precisely in their case will a posthumous push be required. Actually posthumous evaluation and management are likely to be more straightforward and efficient (use-rational) than those accomplishable in the case of a living person, with whom ambition, fame, and money play hob while the publishing industry, so maladapted to scientific, scholarly, and artistic work, wreaks havoc.
Let us examine for costs-benefits a poorest of hypotheticals, the tiny archive of dear Professor Chips.
At the opposite extreme of Professor Chips are the great archives, and now I shall be mentioning true cases rather than hypothetical ones. Some, like those of Picasso and Freud, are so well preserved and husbanded that they will achieve full utilization. Most, while preserved, are hardly exploited. The archive of my own Ph.D. Director, Charles E. Merriam, who led the New Political Science movement at the University of Chicago, and was an advisor to several presidents, was used for a biography, but otherwise has been quite neglected. The greater archive of his student Harold D. Lasswell, who had worldwide influence in all fields of the social sciences, has scarcely begun to be developed; a collection of his letters to his parents is overdue for publication, and a computerized annotated bibliography of his work was published in the Netherlands and can be purchased for $60.00 (this last was prepared by Professor Rodney Muth, a salient innovation). Ordinarily the great archives will receive some attention in biography and criticism, yet still only on condition that the creator is famous in life.
I would not wish to depreciate the continuous labors of, and individual solutions arrived at, by many families and institutions to preserve and utilize beneficially the archives of the creative and avant-garde, but unfortunately particular successes do not amount to solutions of more than a very small fraction of the archival problem.
Hypothetical Table I gives us a conception of the range of the archives problem as well as notions of its size. From it we can reach the considerations of cost. The net cost or subsidy for handling an average large archive may be no more than $30,000, plus overhead, some fifteen to twenty times the cost of coping with a small archive. It may, therefore, be unnecessary to make elaborately different projections for the large ones. All archives must undergo the phases of screening, judging, negotiating, announcing, reproducing, and shipping. And beyond these basic steps occurs the analytic processing, such as content analysis (manual and machine), concordances into computer memory, translations (machine or personal), and so forth.
There would appear to be little in the system envisioned here that would encourage useless scientific, literary, or artistic production. The prospect that a person's creation would be ultimately communicated, if such there were, might actually lead one to complete more work. (The politics of who gets the right to communicate to the future, in what form, and how much, does not escape my attention, but I cannot go into it here; it is like the problem of which patient gets the kidney; or of how many becquerels ought we bequeath our descendants.) Of course, should more work actually be completed, the work of the Institute of Personal Archives Management would be lessened -- a prospect no student of bureaucracy and/or exponential statistics should foretell seriously.
In all, the volume of work carried on annually by the Archives Institute as "literary executors" would be large. Some 1800 commercial contracts might be dealt out. Even more would emerge from academic presses. Perhaps about three per cent would be added to the total of book titles annually; but, "Greens" take note, they would probably constitute no more than one thousandth of one per cent (.00001) of all books produced.
Most of their cost would be borne by the publishers. The research publications appearing in informal format with distribution in the low hundreds would cost little, but over 60,000 of them would perhaps ensue, and about eight million dollars would be needed to pay their costs of duplication and handling. The microform processing of deposits, from which reproductions could be obtained, would cost nearly the same and pay for themselves. The ten to sixty thousand gifts would require decisions, advertising, and shipping. Most of such costs would be met promptly by cash sales receipts. A total budget for a major archival operation covering perhaps 20% of the total Euro-American "need" would approach $500,000,000. But cash outlays and credit back-up of no more than twenty million dollars would be required.
Receipts would come from publishing contracts and cash sales; from cash gifts of estates and individuals; from institutions connected to the archive-creator; from insurance paid in by the creators and their institutions;; and from foundation and government grants. If the scheme were realized in part or wholly, in some cases, if not in others, as a form of term-insurance, premiums varying with age would be paid in by beneficiaries or other parties. Benefits would be the same, within narrow limits; a large archive should be handled more or less at the same premium cost as a small one, for in principle one cannot predict archival variations any better than the age of death, and, similarly, one might not want to try. The premium would probably end up as a fringe benefit. It would be paid in by both his institution and the covered person.
In other cases, one might designate the Institute to receive from one's estate as a payment or bequest a sum of money to be applied to the management of one's archive, the sum (unlike the case of a group premium) to be adjusted from time to time with stipulations of what is to be done with the archive and with its growth in size.
It is possible that senior creative people are more modest, or perhaps more intelligent, than the young, and would prefer to spend their later lives creatively, leaving professional managers of the Institute to take up the burden of assuring their gifts to posterity. We ought not to underestimate the extent to which the burden of managing one's own creative production reduces its bulk and quality and one's morale. Our late-lamented Benfait, Goodfellow, Highrise, and Chips might have been more creative had they not, as they aged, become disgusted with editors, publishers, foundations, families and disciples. Indeed, the very weight of their archives would tend to exacerbate the normal feelings of dependency that increase with age. I believe that my named friends had in reality a goodly share of such sentiments.
Let us summarize what might be the balance sheet of an operation that would offer a sweeping solution to the personal archival problem. The operation might be commercial or non-profit; simply allow in the former case a capital input of one million dollars as a liability and an asset, and add 10% for costs (as capital charges) and to receipts (for higher prices).
But "receipts" as used here accepts the grotesque Gross Domestic Product concept of any thing or service as equal to every other in value, if it is equal in price. Actually, if we can create this dollar-value, we will be creating a "cultural value," a "kalotic GDP" of, say, a billion dollars, where the dollar we are providing gives thrice the value of an average dollar spent in the economy. (This assumption is all the more acceptable by "economics" because of the sunk costs of the goods sold, already paid in by others or by "moonlighting" or created by "slave intellectuals and artists.")
The beneficiaries of our Euro-American creativity-support plan via archives exploitation would be most numerous. If we may continue to coin heuristic figures, we can conjecture benefits to the deceased at 30,000 annually, their families at 200,000 persons, their institutional affiliates at ten million
colleagues, and the nations concerned at 500,000,000 souls, not to mention the other 4.5 billions of humanity, or, for that matter, the untold future billions who will survive the various menaces being accumulated on their behalf.
Balance Sheet of Institute for Personal Archives Management (hypothetical, based on est.20% of potential supply)
COSTS (in $ millions)
Commercial publication (assumed here) 130
Academic Presses (assumed here) 130
Research Publication 110
Microform publication (microfilm, microfiche,
videotape, fax, computer
disks up to CDR of total archive on 1 disk) 110
Gifts and sales management 10
All other management and overhead 30
RECEIPTS (in $ millions)
Commercial Publishers (more than break-even, i.e.) 120
Academic Publishers (less than b-e, i.e. w/subsidies) 100
Cash Sales (research publications and microforms) 200
Gifts of Institutions of Deceased 30
Gifts from Estates and Individuals 40
Foundation Grants 20
Government Foundations and Agencies 10
Term-insurance, which rises in cost annually, and most sharply in late life, would appear to be the best model. A glance at the hundred million dollars required annually to replace the last four categories of Table II, if about 40,000 insured persons were to decease annually, suggests that a premium of around $2,000.00 would be required in the seventieth year. A twelve-payment insurance might also be adopted, requiring some $700 per year, at any time of life.
It might seem that an insurance company would find it economically inefficient to subsist upon 20,000 clients. (So I was advised by a friend, founder and president of a large life insurance company.) Obviously, though, this could not have been true historically. Nor is it true today of numerous special types of corporate and individual insurance, the 250 aircraft of an airline company, for example. One cannot discount the possibility that many universities and other institutions would decide to pay for archival insurance for their faculty. Thus, if an average of ten members of the faculty kick the bucket in the course of a year, the university would be paying in some $80,000.00 annually.
Putting aside any insurance plan, the same payments could be made as a simple purchase. The archival managers would be obligated to undertake all necessary services for persons who must take leave of their archives in the course of the year. Too, the transaction could be on a simple purchase-upon-decease plan, allowing the need for an extra charge in such cases.
The foregoing makes sense and the system can develop and prosper if the managers of the archives are well-organized, well-educated in scientific and humanistic thought patterns, well-audited, and technologically alert -- fully professional, that is, in the best sense of the word. One may foresee, too, a first-rate sales corps organized throughout America and Europe, staffed largely by retired professors and representatives of other creative fields.
The total system might be "go" with as few as a hundred client archives per year, representing no more than $500,000 in costs and revenues. This probability brings the operation within reach of a commercial corporation, a state college and university system, a consortium of colleges, a foundation experiment, or a test by the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.
I prefer to imagine -- for reasons immanent in my writings and experience, and awaiting another time for expression in the present context -- that the undertaking might arise from a purely commercial concern, a private company or a public one issuing stock shares. The company could be organized in the United States or in Switzerland or elsewhere possessed of a free economy and a high technology. Then new competing companies should be formed.
With our concept now made explicit and its possibilities examined in a preliminary fashion, we may wonder that the creative institutions of the country have done so little systematically to develop personal archives. It would appear excessive to develop an answer to the question here, for it has to do with myths about publishing, about age and creativity, and other matters. We would need to disclose the self-delusions and collective illusions that envelop the world of commercial and academic publishing. We would have to revive the debate over the practicality of investing some new force into "the unrealized realized work" of the old as against the unrealized prospects of the young, if that must be the issue. We would need to show how, in this large area, we can, so to speak, keep our original teeth by assiduous brushing with bicarbonate of soda. I think it prudent to leave unprinted such reflections and notes of mine; they can, after all, be published by the professional managers who will be charged with the disposition of my personal archive.