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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

The Fluidity of Electronic Records


MY work on a biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes 1 has prompted some thoughts about manuscript collections and I am glad to have this chance to set them down.

When I began work in earnest on my biography of Justice Holmes six years ago, I visited the manuscript collection at the Harvard Law School Library, where Holmes's executors, with remarkable diligence and thoroughness, had assembled his personal papers. Looking back, that already seems another age. The then curator of manuscripts, Erika Chadbourn, a gentle and determined representative of the visitable past, presided over a modest room under the eaves of Langdell Hall. On the wall were precious, unobtrusively framed photographs of Holmes, Brandeis, and others to whose familiar faces one could not quite put a name. The room was furnished with old library oak tables and chairs, and when a box of papers came up from invisible regions downstairs one turned over the old but supple rag paper pages one by one, making notes in pencil on index cards. Boxes followed boxes, carried by hand or trundled in numbers on a cart. That summer the windows were kept open and it was easy to believe that the green summer light came in directly from a Victorian afternoon.

I think everyone who does my sort of work takes a special pleasure in that moment-the first unfolding of old letters; or opening an old leather-bound memorandum book, its covers smooth with use. There is the scratchy, hasty handwriting of the living person.

Holmes was too impatient even to lift his pen from the paper, and the nib of his pen trailed a nearly continuous line across the page that one stared at for some time before it suddenly resolved into words. He was a frugal gent, increasingly so in his old age; the rusty old pen and the cheap paper that he used to draft opinions would do even for an otherwise courtly letter to a young lady.

I suppose it is the subliminal impression made by the accumulation of such details-the frayed edge of the paper where a larger sheet was folded and torn; the stray stains, the uneven fading of the ink, the slight thinning of the line as ink is drawn out of the nib, and the darkening after it has been dipped, that gives one a sense when handling documents of reaching directly into the past.

Manuscript documents, whatever the reason, seem to have a self-certifying authenticity; they are true, to use an old-fashioned word. Documents tell me that there is a single, fixed, and eternal past; I can peep at it through the narrow- aperture of an opened letter.

Many people who have written biographies have spoken about this special pleasure of looking into manuscript collections. 'Working from manuscripts is, of course, much more fun than working from printed sources,' Ann Thwaite says, getting right to the point.'There are few pleasures to compare with coming across something totally unexpected and revealing.' 2 When they speak of the excitement of discovery I suppose they are talking partly about this sensation of physically visiting the past. If one is writing about a recent period, perhaps a survivor from the time can convey this sense; or perhaps there is still a house, a room, a desk and chair; but more commonly one has only or has principally papers, carefully kept like jewels.

All manuscript documents seem to give this pleasure in some degree; I recall reading recently of a biographer becoming enthusiastic over the discovery of a laundry list. All such documents are unexpected and revealing, because they carry something, not only of their authors, but of their time. Context gives meaning; and the papers themselves have an individuality, a life. A document is written on letter paper, foolscap, a card, or a telegram form; there is an engraved or printed address-'Taplow Court' in glistening, up-to-date Victorian flourishes; or a simple, engraved, businesslike numbered street address in town. A black border-there has been a death. Watermarks give a place and sometimes a date that is otherwise lost. Discolored creases show that a letter has been folded and carried in a pocket book, perhaps for years. Fanny Holmes's notes to her husband were scribbled, sometimes in pencil, on any old scrap of paper; a hint of self-deprecation. The idiosyncrasies of paper making and handwriting give every document a faint perfume of individuality.

Holmes destroyed nearly all the letters he received from Lady Castletown during the time of their romantic liaison, but he kept one. It was written on a small sheet of heavy stock, hardly more than a card, folded over once. It was written with easy clarity in mixed French and English; and folded into the letter was a sprig of leaves that dropped onto the table when the letter was opened. With the help of Dr. Peter E Stevens, curator of the Harvard Herbaria, I was able to identify the leaves, and so fill in a detail, a slender narrative thread in Holmes's life. As a young man, at a bad moment, he had been cheered by the sight of some late autumn flowering Joe Pye Weed; thirty years later at the time of their growing intimacy he told Lady Castletown the story, and sent her some seeds for her conservatory The following year Holmes and she spent a moment in that conservatory he liked to remember; and later still, when, with exquisitely hinted affection, she chided him for the excessive intimacy of his letters, Lady Castletown enclosed in hers that sprig of leaves.

Documents are so rich in meaning that a laundry list is a treasure. I felt the same excitement when I found a box of Holmes's old check stubs, and his father's appointment book for the last year of his life, in which by careful attention one could see that, toward the end, Holmes was making the entries his father was no longer able to write.

Holmes kept his own diary appointments in ink, but afterward on returning home from a dinner engagement, say -- he would add comments in pencil. Faint pencilled x's and crosses in his diary, imitated from his father's, mark episodes of ill health. The days Holmes spent with Lady Castletown apparently alone with her at her family's seat, Doneraile Court, were marked with repeated pencilled crosses in Holmes's diary; marks that might be open to all sorts of romantic interpretations if the documents themselves did not tell us that they mark an unromantic attack of shingles.

I sometimes think one could extract a whole biography from a single document as, in Holmes's simile, archaeologists reconstruct an extinct fish from a single scale. With enough patience and ingenuity I think Holmes's check stubs would yield up the story of his friendships in New York City, an otherwise still unopened chapter in his life story. There are limits to what one person ought to do along these lines; I had reached mine. But the documents are there, waiting for new hands to unfurl their inner petals. The documents like the past itself remain what they were, more ample and contradictory than any one account of them.

Unfortunately, though, like their authors, manuscripts are fragile, and they do not offer themselves promiscuously. Until 1983, Harvard limited access to the Holmes papers and allowed only one biographer chosen by some process within the law school. Sadly, the chosen biographers each died before writing a biography (the last, Grant Gilmore, effectively resigned the assignment before his death in 1982) and there was no biography written for more than fifty years after Holmes's death. (Catherine Drinker Bowen has denied access to Holmes's papers and the then executors refused permission for her to quote at any length from his writings; her best seller, Yankee From Olympus, was a somewhat fictionalized group biography of Holmes's family.)

When the Harvard Law School decided to open the Holmes papers to all scholars I was among the first beneficiaries of the new policy, and I certainly don't mean to slam the door behind me. A great many scholars seem to have an interest in Holmes, with the predictable result that his papers have been microfilmed, and copies sold to libraries across the country; the originals for the most part are kept in a vault. If they are inspected now it is in the law school's windowless, climate-controlled 'treasure room.' The lovely old pictures that used to adorn the walls of the manuscript room upstairs quite properly have been retired to sunless file drawers.

The microfilms have made possible a new outpouring of scholarship on Holmes; in these six years since I began work on the Holmes papers we have entered a new era, a democratic era of indiscriminate access -- and it seems right that we have.

The next step can't be far off -- the step to scanners and the entry of manuscripts along with printed matter into data bases that are accessible from desk-top computers. In such data bases the boundaries of documents are just electronic marks, and the whole vast content of the archive is a single text that can be read, rearranged, and rewritten, as easily as thinking.

This will be quite a change. Libraries are the repositories of the past -- not only of records but of the unchanging past itself. Electrons have no history; the particle that coalesces abruptly from the void is indistinguishable from its billion-year-old twin. But a history makes a person or a nation unique. Biography, whether it begins with grandfathers or with breast-feeding, is history. Each of us treasures her or his own history because personal identity is exactly that history. The library is where we go to find the roots, if you will, of our identity

The step from documents to microfilm, and the coming step from microfilm to data bases, seemingly just matters of convenience, cut at those roots. A microfilm loses so much detail-the intricate rich factuality of the document disappears. What remains is not the thing itself, with its powerful authority, not even really a copy, but a different sort of thing entirely, a photograph that substitutes its own character; in which pen and pencil are indistinguishable, in which all hands are reduced to a single line quality, all papers are reduced to a single grade, in which the delicate perfume of personality of a unique place and time, the self-certifying truthfulness of the past is gone; or worse, falsified. The pressed leaves are reduced to a black outline and lie, like a mug shot, half-ironical, on their own square of film.

This is all just another aspect of the very long process we have been living through, the substitution of mass products for the unique and personal. It is undoubtedly an irresistible and inevitable process. But we don't want our documentary history, our visitable past, to disintegrate into a fluid stream of grey images, and then into a cloud of vibrating electrons, in which infinite numbers of isolated words float free of context and determinate meaning.

Now and then some artist comes along and manages to find in the new forms a language that captures the richness of the past, at least the usable past. The despised theater became an art form; the decorations for the businessman's new houses became a dance of feeling. I wish for a new Shakespeare, a new Matisse, of the computer keyboard. Of course I don't know if it is possible to take this further step, to store documents electronically with so much of their unique detail that each bursts out of the video screen with holographic intensity, restored to life and color like the Sistine frescoes. I don't know, but I hope so.


1. Honorable Justice: The life of Oliver Wendell Holmes (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1989).

2.Ann Thwaite. 'Writing Lives,' in The Troubled Face of Biography (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), 18.