Archival Uncertainties: International Conference on Literary Archives at the British Library – 4 April 2016
This one-day conference focused on digital humanities, with papers from a spectrum of interested parties including academics working on digitisation projects, authors, translators, archivists and curators. I attended three panels on the day and the unifying theme was a contrary message of dispersal and amalgamation (and butterflies).
The first thing that has been dispersed or discarded is any idea of a literary canon. As plenary speaker and archivist Catherine Hobbs pointed out, scholarship now focuses less on established set texts and more on themes like “environmental literature”. Over the past few decades, in response to this, archives have collected more non-traditionally canonical literary papers but, Catherine reminded us, as archivists we can’t stop paying attention to the ways that literature continues to change. We need to keep tabs on what is going on in the literary world in order to document it, and this will include tackling new forms of experimental, avant-garde and self-published writing.As Catherine noted, it used to be easy to find the avant-garde – pretty much whoever was hanging out on the Left Bank – but now it’s up to archivists to not only collect this material, but to track it down in the first place, and not to default to the temptingly easy path of collecting only the papers of that tiny sliver of authors considered publishable by mainstream publishers.