In Jacques Derrida’s book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1996) he writes about the French idiom mal d’archive (archive fever) explaining that this idea is more than simply suffering from a sickness but it is – “to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” (Derrida, 91)
Carolyn Steedman, in her book Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2002), explains that the archive that Freud and Derrida speak of is one that does not exist as a single space, rather it’s the desire to return to the origins, to find the place where something has started. Archive fever or mal d’archives is an obsession with the archive, the deep desire to search through traces of the past to obtain an understanding of a person, a historic moment, a place, or an idea that has been repressed by the passage of time.
I read both of these texts during my Master’s degree and this way of describing the archives has stayed with me since then throughout my PhD as I’ve found myself repeatedly catching archive fever, recovering and succumbing to it yet again. Like many graduate students, I have spent much time combing through libraries for a particular book, or visiting museums or galleries and reading through boxes of materials tangentially related to the individuals I’m researching, hoping that I’ll come across a letter or a slip of paper that might give some insight into my research topic.
My research involves studying particular individuals living at least a hundred years ago, and getting to know them through the archives has been equally exciting and frustrating. It involves travelling to cities further afield (Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto for myself), being limited by the select hours or days that institutions are open for, and not being able to eat for long stretches of time as every moment you have peering through boxes of papers is precious in order to find that one item that you came all this way looking for. You won’t know what that item is until you see it which makes the whole process an even more exciting one, but there’s also that constant worry in the back of your head that the archive will close before you do find it and you will have to wait until your next trip to resume the search.
Steedman’s description of the archive speaks to me as it acknowledges the discomfort of this search for knowledge. As a researcher you often find yourself playing the role of a detective, spending hours reading through diaries, searching through photo albums, looking at newspaper clippings, trying to piece together someone’s life that you will never meet and making sense of what is otherwise completely unrelated information. Many archive trips end in disappointment – the file you were hoping to come across was not there, the smoking gun to tie your thesis together perhaps does not exist in the way you thought it might, and yet you go back to the archive for future trips, for another uncomfortable 6 hours where you’re on your feet leaning over a box or sitting quietly trying to decipher cryptic handwriting while that person a few tables over takes continuous photos with their phone at full volume.
In some archives I’m told I can only touch these precious documents that I need to pore over if I wear a pair of white gloves, in others I’m told that white gloves only make your hands less dexterous and you’re more at risk of ripping the paper. In some, I’m not allowed to take photos and must meticulously copy down information I need by hand, while in others I take photos of every individual page of a diary I’m looking at so that I can read through it more carefully later. On research trips that last a few days, I’ll find myself in a daze after leaving the archive, even having dreams about them.
To some, visiting the archive can be akin to a religious experience. You are going through the personal effects of someone that you’ve been spending many hours, days or even years studying. This is a piece of paper that they held in their hand. This is an envelope that they licked closed, or a note that they folded up only for you, many years later, to open. You may be the only person to have looked at this file in twenty years. You may be the only person alive today able to appreciate a joke or reference as the author intended. Particularly for those of us who are studying historical topics far enough into the past, there’s no other way for us to get to know our subjects, and so venturing into the archive can be an illuminating undertaking.
Steedman explains that “Archive Fever comes on at night, long after the archive has closed for the day. Typically, the fever – more accurately, the precursor fever – starts in the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the historian cannot get to sleep. […] What keeps you awake […] is actually the archive, and its myriads of the dead, who all day long, have pressed their concerns upon you. […] You think: I could get to hate these people; and then: I can never do these people justice, and finally: I shall never get it done.” (Steedman, 18) She goes on to say that the fever comes on more strongly during the penultimate day, when you know you must leave soon; you cannot afford to stay at the archive indefinitely as it is expensive to pay your room and board. You have that aching feeling that “you know you will not finish, that there will be something left unread, unnoted, untranscribed.”
Thankfully, the next day when you pack your things to go, the fever inevitably breaks. You’re no longer living in that world that’s halfway between then and now. You feel yourself emerging from the haze of where you’ve been and you make your trip back to home, armed with… you’re not quite sure. Is what you found on this research trip enough? Will you need to go back and try yet again? Can you make sense of the traces that you have found? Will you ever be able to make yourself comb back through those feverish photographs you took without the pressure of the archive breathing on the back of your neck?
I’m writing this post on Archive Fever because I’m surprised at how often I’ve talked to classmates who have also felt these feelings and were unaware that others experience it too. I want to assure fellow graduate researchers out there that the fever is real. It’s exciting and awful, and it’s hard to describe to others who do not have to delve into the depths of the archive, but it’s one of my favourite parts of my PhD.
– Isabel Luce
Note: All the photos in this post have come from my various archival trips within the last year.