The Project of Personal Archives for scholars and productive people
As Alfred de Grazia had taken an early retirement from New York University in 1977 and was working intensively on the "Quantavolution Series," he found himself confronted ever more frequently by a common experience, shared by everyone advancing in age: a number of close collaborators and friends died. As most of these had been researchers and scholars and generally active intellectually, they all had left personal archives of varying size.
|The Silver Towers of New York University, by I. M. Pei, 110, Bleecker Street, NYC - with "Buste de Sylvette" by Pablo Picasso. Photo: Ami de Grazia|
|Prof. Livio Catullus Stecchini, for instance, died in 1979, leaving a remarkable and voluminous archive of unpublished materials. He had been a historian of science and an expert in ancient measures, and had done extensive and controversial work in the field. Only a slight part of his research had been published, there was little chance that much of what he left behind would ever appear in print; so the preservation of the archive looked problematic. |
A few weeks after his death, Alfred and I spent several days at his home, examining and assessing the materials, box after box of them, filling his basement office at his home in Paterson, New Jersey. The material was varied and fascinating and covered a life-time of work and study. Yet, there was only the smallest of possibilities that those who might be stimulated by, and profit from his ideas and from his research - scholars who might not yet have been born - might ever have access to it, or even come to know of its existence. Indeed, the survival of the whole unpublished archive was anything but assured.
The sudden death of Livio Stecchini's widow a few years later made the question of its preservation even more acute. His two children were barely of college age, were housed in dormitories, and could hardly be saddled with the physical load of a large archive. What happened, one asked, to such valuable archives, and Livio Stecchini's was only one of many, which were left to the vagaries of inheritance, downsizing, moving...?
The case of Livio Stecchini's archive poignantly illustrated the plight of the life-work of intellectually creative people: an enormous mass of research and work valuable to the future was going to waste - a casualty of the indifference of the academic and scientific communities, of sheer lack of time and know-how and resources, and of the vagaries of modern life.
Alfred de Grazia tried to get New York University involved in rescuing the archive of Livio Steechini but no interest was forthcoming. (Stecchini was "tainted" in the academic world for his having supported the views of Immanuel Velikovsky, his long-time friend.)
|In 1980, Alfred de Grazia conceived the "Living-Archive" plan to help both the working scholars and their heirs to come to terms with the problem of such archives. The very first draft of his idea of the "living-archive" has been preserved, and is itself now a piece of significant "archive bit" : it was handwritten right then and there, on a table at the New York University Bobst Library, and typed by me in our neighboring apartment at the Silver Towers (see above)|
, on what was then a state-of-the-art IBM Selectric - an instrument then known as a typewriter.
|The basic principle of the "living archive" was that this life work of scholars, without any prior judgement of its value at the time when it became available - as such value would be susceptible to change drastically over future decades - should be made available in a compact form, retrievable and adequately indexed, and made available to those interested. As scanning and digitalizing, let alone the Internet, were off in the future (or rather, they were tantalizingly close, but nobody knew quite how close-looming was this revolution, and how all-encompassing it would soon be) he naturally leaned towards the technique of microfiches. |
Even at the beginning of our relationship, in the mid-1970s, he had told me of a dream he had to travel the world, carrying a suitcase filled with a whole library in the form of micro-fiches... He himself had been a pioneer in the computerization of material of an archival nature, as early as the mid-1960s, when he created the Universal Reference System, the first computerized reference system in the social sciences. "The leading exponent-and practitioner-in this area .. has been Alfred de Grazia, professor of government at New York University,"wrote Clifton Brock in 1967 in the magazine "Library Trends." "Volume I of this Universal Reference System series, on International Affairs (New York, 1965),was produced on IBM 1401/1410 computers and contains citations, annotations, and indexed descriptors of over 3,000 books and articles..."
|Alfred de Grazia handed his idea around, and pleaded its case, without meeting much enthusiasm. He took it up from time after time in the following decades, continuing to work upon it. One of the problems was obviously of a financial nature: the processing of an archive would demand an investment which heirs might not be willing or might be not be in measure to undertake. The main interessees, the creator of the archive and the future scholar, could not ordinarily bring to bear much weight - financial or other.|
Over time, Alfred de Grazia considered the possibility of an "insurance policy" which could be contracted by the creator of the archive, or could be provided as a benefit by his employer, such as an academic institution. Forays were made in that direction, but the idea still appeared too "far-out" to a conservative insurance industry.
With the advent of small, fast, personal computers and the Internet, the idea of the "living archive" attained suddenly its full possibility: there was no longer a limit to the amount of material that could be stored in an ever diminishing amount of space and of making it available to anybody in the world might be interested in it, in an ideally accessible form, fully searchable beyond anything that had been known before.
Alfred de Grazia, who was by then nearing 80, understood this new opportunity, which was, in fact, the fullfilment of his earlier conception. He decided to apply the idea to his own, ever more voluminous archive and in 1997 created, as a proto-type, his web-site: grazian-archive.com.
Ami de Grazia, April 2011
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