Sunday, March 8, 2015

In praise of private papers

Bombay High Court Chief Justice
Sir Norman Macleod at home,
from his private papers
(courtesy of Highland Archive Service,
Inverness, Scotland)
Many of my favorite research moments have occurred while leafing through private or personal papers. These are the collections of miscellaneous documents—including dinner invitations, photos, diaries, newspaper clippings and letters—that people sometimes preserve and leave to archives. For some reason, lawyers and judges in British India (whether European or South Asian) left few private papers. The handful of collections that do exist are usually at the British Library or the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, although see my earlier post in praise of small archives, too.

Most legal historians appreciate the strange delights of this genre of sources. But far fewer scholars think about preserving their own papersor are willing to admit to it! An encounter with a serious accident or illness, or simply with aging, makes you realize a few things. First, you are not overestimating your own importance by preserving your papers. Your “papers,” both physical and electronic, capture the life of a scholar of your times. Your papers are only partly about you, in other words. Perhaps more importantly, they are about your world and the world that preceded you. As Orwell put it in Coming up for Air: “Is it gone forever? I’m not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you.” 

Second, you can think about these preparations, or you can not think about them and risk having everything go to waste. At my home institution of the University of Wisconsin Law School, I am on a secret mission (perhaps secret no more) to get my colleagues to organize their papers after they retire. The university archives are eager to receive faculty papers. Most of my colleagues seem not to have thought about it. Once they do, they can organize their papers in ways that respect their own wishes for privacy or publicity while also sparing their relatives the arduous and at times impossible task of organizing these papers in the scholars’ absence.

Third is the whole new universe of questions surrounding digital assets after death. In the press, we read about post-mortem management of social media accounts. Nobody wants to receive reminders of your birthday after you die, but many people would like to see your memorial site. Facebook and Gmail users can now make plans for their accounts after death. Services like LegacyLocker let you empower someone else to manage your digital accounts after death. But what about the research notes and photos you want to share with future researchers? This category of digital assets also requires careful thought and planning. University archives are as interested in electronic legacies as in paper ones.

We should appreciate the riches of other peoples’ private papers, but also of our own.