Pressing Flowers

[I wrote this several months ago, as I was preparing to leave Paris. I had only accomplished a fraction of what I had planned to do during my year abroad, but the imminent digitization of many of my archives promised to make my academic life easier once I returned to the United States. It will be a convenient way to conduct research, but the prospect of working that way makes me unspeakably sad. I love my field in part because I get to interact with old things. Digital collections, for all their accessibility, just aren’t the same.]

I’m sitting in an archive. Today is one of those rare days when everything works – I arrived on time, the building was open, my documents were available. I have not had many of those days, here in France.

My documents are spread out in front of me, on a too-small table, threatening to crowd out the elderly researcher to my left. He’ll do the same to me as soon as I move.

With these pages, bits of information, figures, photos, and other flat things, I am trying to create a three-dimensional, living world. Some of the information jumps off the page – things related to China. Porcelain. Lacquer. Sometimes I go back to look over what I’ve read before, and the characters are dead again. I don’t always know how to revive them. Sometimes they haunt me. Maybe I haunt them.

Someone’s short brown hair is in the fold, almost one with the binding. I wonder how long it has been there, whether it is a relic or just the body-print of another researcher.

I suppose that’s a relic, too.

The document is a palimpsest of bodily leavings.

When they digitize it, I won’t see the hair.

The old-man smell, too, will disappear. I’ll forget that real people touched the paper. The dust won’t invade my nostrils.

Someone – a student, an overworked librarian – will scan it, too quickly, and fail to notice the black blotches and white patches that even technology can’t rectify. I will see it and skip over those parts. I’ll mourn their loss, but nobody will re-scan the original, because it will be “incommunicable,” locked in a temperature-controlled vault so that it can’t decompose too quickly.

The democratic, easily-accessible version won’t be legible.

Much of what I work with is illegible anyway. There are days when I can decipher one out of every hundred words, and when I come to the moment when the secretary changes, when suddenly the letters are shaped carefully and lovingly, as if to call my attention, I want to hug this being with the lovely handwriting.

Monsieur De La Tour had good penmanship. Monsieur Edan did not. Guess whose work I’ll be using more frequently.

I’m collecting pressed flowers. There is nothing essential here. Gather the dust, add water, shape it as I like, knowing it might fall apart, disintegrate, blow away.  Sometimes the documents themselves do. The archivist looks at me suspiciously when I return the book with its cover half gone and the pages crumbling. This is partly why they’re digitizing everything, to keep my American hands from destroying French patrimony.

It’s a strange irony – I’m trying to preserve this, or at least tell a story with it, and I’m killing it in the process.

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