The Library After Dark: The Seedy World of Document Fetishism

Shhh!Cathy Alter writes in McSweeney’s:

Psychoanalysts sometimes speak of the epistemophilic instinct, an unbridled love of learning that grips scholars like fingernails in their backs. But when a reader at London’s Public Record Office literally ingested The Abortive Treaty of 1604 (after first ordering the Treaty of Union with Scotland as an appetizer), that was taking the passion for primary sources a little too far. And, according to Helen Wood, who recently received her Masters of Archive Administration and Records Management from the University of Liverpool, this sort of conduct takes place in archives all the time. Forget the tales of sexual politics in the faculty lounge — the kinkiest stuff occurs between the sheaves at your local library.

Wood’s dissertation, “The Fetish of the Document: An Exploration of Attitudes Towards Archives,” gives new meaning to Special Collections. Her essay centers around the participatory role the archivist has in creating and influencing fetishistic behavior — in themselves and in those who use, and sometimes abuse, archives. “We are all fetishists of some sort. It’s a normal state of mind,” admits the 25-year-old Wood, adding, “This phenomena is incredibly prevalent in the museum, archive, and library profession and I feel it is about time they realized it.”

In her dissertation, Wood first lays out her three primary models of fetishism: anthropological, Marxist (a far-flung definition of a commodity fetish which she soon abandons), and the hard-to-ignore Freudian interpretation. All three models, she writes, define the fetish as an object possessing a special energy, power, or independent life force. Yet only two, the anthropological and the psychosexual explanation, define the difference between okay and not-so okay fetishism. It’s one thing to venerate a first edition of Freud’s Die Traumdeutung, it’s another thing all together to shove it down your pants wearing little white gloves.

Anthropologically speaking, archivists use ritualistic methods in the preserving, promoting, managing, and displaying of archives. As preservers of heritage, this “acculturation” causes them to view the archives as sacred relics, the repository — especially if it has vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows — as a church, and themselves as priests. What’s more, according to Wood, “the archivist then imposes further value by restricting access, preventing certain people from using a document or preventing all from seeing it until a specified date. In doing this they create curiosity about the archive and install it as a fetish object. These ritualistic actions go some way towards maintaining the document’s uniqueness and mystique.”

Read more at McSweeney’s.