I left off last month promising details of how the work of early nineteenth-century American antiquarians has, over the last two centuries, morphed into the work of cataloging, archiving, and collecting, of how the “science” of antiquarianism has become the “science” of information. To address this shift, we might start by looking at how the work of librarians in creating metadata was understood as these organizing and ordering processes emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Specifically, the work of metadata creation became a performance of ownership of the “data” it describes, a way of asserting an institution’s right, not in the legal sense, but in the realm of cultural preservation and humanist endeavors, to own a collection. Let me offer an example.
As I wrote about a few months ago, we are hard at work here at AAS making the Mathew Carey financial records more accessible online through the creation of a name index turned relational database that will take users to the exact images of the account records they seek in our digital image archive, Gigi. To answer the question that started to vex me when we embarked on this digital project—How did these papers end up in Worcester anyhow?—I turned to the AAS Records to learn about their provenance.
In the Records, I came across the exchange of letters between AAS Librarian Clarence Brigham and Thomas Montgomery, Librarian of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), about each institution’s acquisition of Carey materials. The year is 1928 and AAS has just purchased 40 plus Carey volumes. The exchange begins with Brigham inquiring after details of the sale of about a hundred volumes of Carey’s correspondence (later the firm of Lea and Febiger, the collection’s title at HSP). Montgomery responds, explaining that HSP “secured the collection through Mr. Lea,” but also noting his displeasure at being not the successful bidder, but the “bidder-up” at the sale of the financial records. In a subsequent letter, Montgomery expresses “a good deal of disappointment over the fact that the Lea and Febiger papers should be separated.” HSP already has all of Carey’s correspondence, and the Library Company, also in Philadelphia, has Carey’s book collection. Montgomery therefore suggests to Brigham that Carey’s financial records should also be in Philadelphia. Brigham also laments the separation of the collection, but from the opposite perspective. He writes, “We were exceedingly anxious to obtain [the correspondence] as they were the accounts of a firm of printers who had dealings all over the country with engravers, binders, publishers and book purchasers. We already had the Accounts and Correspondence of five similar firms and the lot fitted exceedingly well into our collection.” Today, those of us who work on Carey and the early American book trade might also bemoan this separation, though we can also hope that the digital surrogates of these collections will one day be united.
It is the way in which Brigham makes his argument to Montgomery that I want to linger on here. Ostensibly, I must admit, Montgomery is kind of right: Carey was a Philadelphian, the letters that the HSP had just purchased are extensive, and the Library Company already had Carey’s library: it really does make sense that his financial records would remain in his beloved city. And yet, Brigham will not see it this way for one “chief” reason: metadata. He writes: “Although I agree with you in believing that these papers might well have been kept together, I still believe that the Accounts Books would be of more use to students throughout the country if they were here … chiefly because we will make an exhaustive catalogue of the entire series—50,000 names or more, and I doubt if any other library would do this for a lot of business ledgers which to most people would seem of very little value.” Though this number should be understood as more an overly enthusiastic boast than a carefully reasoned estimate—the number is more like 10,000 than 50,000—it is the fact that Brigham turns not to the records themselves, but to the work done to the records to justify AAS’s ownership of them. Legally and ethically, AAS owns these records because they purchased them, but Brigham makes an argument that addresses another sphere altogether: he wants AAS’s right to the papers to also be justified in the world of humanist endeavors that aim in part to preserve and make useful the historical record. In his mind, it serves a greater good for AAS to have the financial records because of the work they will do to make them accessible, because of the metadata they will attach to them.
In short then, Brigham figures the work of organizing, of ordering these volumes as an exercise of the cultural right to possess, to claim one’s self or one’s institution as the best proprietor. Walter Benjamin reminds us in his essay “Unpacking My Library” that “…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” Digital humanities projects often heavily rely on metadata that institutions such as libraries and archives have created, and the institutional perspective on the labor that created it might be instructive as we remediate that metadata to suit our various ends. The antiquarians who have fueled AAS for over two centuries now—people such as Isaiah Thomas, Christopher Columbus Baldwin, Clarence Brigham, Waldo Lincoln, Mary Robinson Reynolds, Avis Clark—found lives for themselves in the objects held at AAS and the work they did with them and, in a sense, for them. And understanding their work as Brigham posits here—as the exercising of a right to own an object—might cause us to trouble some of the ideology of the open access movement, when we stop to wonder about this traditionally deemphasized, if not unmarked, intellectual labor that created the metadata on which we in the digital humanities so heavily rely. For that labor justified ownership, and ultimately, the preservation without which many valuable collections would not now be available to us.