The website of Dan Erdman
I could say that the phrase “dusty archive” bothers me due to some sense of professional propriety – you know, “speaking as an archivist.” I wouldn’t be entirely off my rocker to do so, either, since physical upkeep of the collection and premises – ie, keeping the place more or less free of dust – is one of the cardinal tasks of the archivist; wheeling this idiom out often enough to imply that archives are in a perpetual state of squalor suggests that we all really suck at our jobs. I’d be in good company as well: there’s of course a Tumblr site dedicated to defending the honor of archivists from this slander, and it of course involves cats as well.
But no, I hate it because it’s a stupid cliché, the equivalent of how, even unto the present day, the headline (or, even worse, the lede) of any news story about comics has to include the non-sequitur “Bang! Zap! Pow!” Go ahead and google “dusty archive,” you’ll never run out of examples. The earliest use I found, and I didn’t look very hard, was the March 20, 1920 Moving Picture World review of a film called THE MOTHER SUFFERS, which was based on an unpublished novel by Don Manuel Orozco y Berra; the MPW reviewer thought it turned out pretty well despite the fact that “the story was written many years ago in a Mexican prison and has remained in the meantime in a dusty archive.” My favorite is the May 8, 1943 report in the Motion Picture Herald on, of all things, the discovery of the paper print collection at the Library of Congress – “A clerk poking into the dusty files of the Library of Congress unearthed the archive relics of the motion picture for 1897-1913, copyright prints on paper rolls of the output of the American industry through those years.” Admittedly, it’s the files, not the archive, that’s called “dusty” here, and that sentence has bigger problems its use of the Cliche of the Damned anyway (it was painful to type, let alone to read).
Really, there ought to just be a general moratorium on the use of the very word “archive” by those not in the profession. I try not to be a snob, but I’m sorry, most of you have no idea what you’re talking about when you even use the term. To the general public it’s usually just synonym for “a bunch of stuff sitting around,” which is at least makes a kind of sense; much worse is the recent discovery of the word by various academic clods. We probably have Archive Fever to thank for for stuff like this description of a forthcoming book of arts criticism: “The typewriter, the card index, and the filing cabinet: these are technologies and modalities of the archive. To the bureaucrat, archives contain little more than garbage, paperwork no longer needed; to the historian, on the other hand, the archive’s content stands as the quasi-objective correlative of the ‘living’ past…In [this book], [some guy] investigates the archive – as both bureaucratic institution and index of evolving attitudes toward contingent time in science and art – and finds it to be a crucible of twentieth-century modernism.” Whew! I typically just shrug and say “eh, it’s a living” when I talk about my job, but I suppose I ought to have a bit more pride – not everyone gets to work in a crucible of twentieth-century modernism (replete with both technologies and modalities)!
If you must culturally appropriate my workplace, at least try to be a little creative about it. A gold star goes to Yolanda Wisher, whose poem “Tin Woman’s Lament” is excerpted in the picture above. Harold Arlen ought to set it to music.