REPS Recommends… The Archivist

Abigail Cramer is the Librarian/Archivist at Historic New England, a member of the REPS steering committee, and a member of a handful of NEA Program Committees. Abby received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2012 and has a B.A. in English. She loves reading, loves being an archivist, and especially loves it when the two overlap.

The Archivist by Martha Cooley

Martha Cooley’s novel about the archivist processing the sealed T.S. Eliot papers before they become public is an interesting exploration of archival work, and it is a book that raises a lot of ethical questions about our profession.

The novel is well written and intertwines a number of compelling and parallel stories. Cooley narrates some sections of the novel from the point of view of Matthias Lane, a late-career archivist. Another section of the novel is his wife’s diary, and another is a series of letters between T.S. Eliot and his lover, Emily Hale. It’s a great read, particularly if you’re interested in archives and literary history. It’s engrossing and moving, and while the book employs a lot of parallels between characters, Cooley manages to keep the stories genuine and believable. That is until the end. I loved this book until the last few pages. Really! But the final moments of the novel will leave every archivist who reads it wondering what on earth Cooley was thinking. [SPOILERS AHEAD].

Much of the plot of the novel revolves around the fact that the T.S. Eliot letters to Emily Hale (donated by Hale) are restricted from use until 70 years after her death. Matthias Lane, in working with the collection, discovers that T.S. Eliot requested that Emily Hale burn all of his letters so that no one would ever be able to read them. So Lane takes it upon himself to do what Hale didn’t do: he destroys the letters because he sympathizes with T.S. Eliot and wants to respect his wishes. As an archivist, I was stunned and appalled by this; the collection was donated by Hale and is governed by her gift agreement, not by any content of the letters in the collection! But as a human, I agree with Lane’s actions and I, too, sympathize with Eliot’s request. This book left me feeling seriously torn, and it left me wondering what the rest of the archival community felt. Which is more important, being an archivist or being a human?

Note: the real papers of T.S. Eliot letters to Emily Hale are held at Princeton, are restricted until 2020, and are presumably perfectly intact.

What do you think about The Archivist? Tell us below!

Explore other REPS RecommendationsInterested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).

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