Sylvia Plath’s new short story was never ‘lost’ – so why is the media saying it was ‘just discovered’?



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Archivists put an immense amount of work into organizing, digitizing and maintaining repositories.
AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Bethany Anderson, University of Virginia

The recent publication of Sylvia Plath’s short story “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been met with much fanfare, with the media eager to highlight that the story had been “lost,” only to have recently been “found.”

The Boston Globe described the work as “recently discovered” in its headline. A Vox article evoked a scene of abandonment and deterioration – the story had “languished in her archives for decades.”

And a recent New Yorker article, “A Lost Story by Sylvia Plath Contains the Seeds of the Writer She Would Become,” noted that “not even the author’s estate had known the story existed until the critic and academic Judith Galzer-Raymo stumbled over it while doing research in Plath’s archives.”

But was Plath’s story really “lost”? For years, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” has been preserved – and has been accessible to the public – at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, thanks to the work of archivists and other cultural stewards.

As an archivist, I bristle at this sort of misleading coverage, which is only the latest example of the media ignoring the work of archivists in order to highlight something found in archives as “newly discovered.”

What’s behind this media impulse and why do these mischaracterizations persist?

Archival tropes

I’ve become all too accustomed to seeing headlines about “long-lost” manuscripts that have been found.

For example, in 2012 two articles in The Atlantic debated whether a medical report relating to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination amounted to a “discovery.”

As another example, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a “long-lost letter” by René Descartes that had “lain buried in the archives [at Haverford College] for more than a century.” The public also recently learned of letters from interned Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War that had been “long-forgotten in the bowels of Library and Archives Canada.” In all these examples, the documents were already preserved and accessible in archival repositories.

And on the rare occasions that archives are featured in the press or in popular culture, they’re usually characterized as old, secluded and dusty places.

For example, in 2013 The New York Times published an article titled “Leaving Cloister of Dusty Offices, Young Archivists Meet Like Minds.”

If the headline alone didn’t convey this sentiment, the text drove it home: The archivists, it read, had “long spent their careers cloistered, like the objects they protected.”

Any archivist reading this story knows that nothing could be further from the truth. In a letter to the editor, Helen W. Samuels, a former archivist at MIT, responded, “While I was delighted that your article focused attention on the talented archivists now employed by so many institutions, I was saddened that it perpetuated the outdated image of archivists as preservers of dusty, precious artifacts maintained in a cloistered environment.”

Innovators versus maintainers

For the record, “dusty” doesn’t characterize any of the repositories I’ve worked in or visited. For example, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia is clean with an open layout, and its spaces are filled with natural light. Similarly, the University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library spaces do not fit the “dusty” stereotype.

Perhaps the media finds these tropes appealing because they evoke the romance and mystery of unearthing, discovering and rescuing rare books, documents or artifacts, as if they’re hidden treasures. After all, who doesn’t want to feel like Indiana Jones? And by representing archives as dusty, cloistered places, the materials appear to be on the verge of disappearing into obscurity – that is, unless a researcher comes to the rescue.

Another reason these tropes persist could have to do with the way our society privileges innovators over maintainers. Maintainers, according to scholars Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel, are “those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.”

Archivists are maintainers: They perform the “ordinary” work of acquiring, appraising and arranging archival materials. They respond to the inquiries of students and researchers, and work to preserve materials for posterity.

As members of the archival community have pointed out, this sort of work is generally ignored and misunderstood. Instead, when it comes to stories about archival research, stories will focus on the “innovators” – the scholars who write about the rare manuscript or old letter and, in doing so, rescue these materials from obscurity.

In almost every case, these stories gloss over the fact that these items exist in publicly accessible collections and are described in finding aids and databases.

Giving credit where credit’s due

This is not to take anything away from the work of researchers. Archival research is a process that often involves an intense commitment of time and energy. A researcher can see value or significance in a letter or manuscript that might have otherwise gone unnoticed outside of the archives.

Much of the media coverage of ‘Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’ describe it as a work that was ‘lost’ and then ‘found.’
Harper Collins

Nonetheless, while a researcher might be the first researcher to read a document, they may not be the first person to have encountered it – not when archivists, curators, librarians and other staff work with materials on a daily basis.

Interestingly, the researcher featured in The New Yorker article about the Plath short story doesn’t appear to have been the first scholar to have “discovered” that “lost” Sylvia Plath story. As Rebecca Baumann, Head of Public Services at the Lilly Library, noted, “Many people have written about [“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom”] … There’s published scholarship that discusses [it].“

But that doesn’t always make for the best story.The Conversation

Bethany Anderson, University Archivist, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Stolen or Lost Kindle – What to Do?


The link below is to a very useful article on what to do should the unthinkable happen – your Kindle is lost or even stolen.

For more visit:
http://goodereader.com/blog/electronic-readers/what-to-do-if-your-amazon-kindle-is-stolen-or-lost

Article: More on Amazon


The link below is to another article that more-or-less defends Amazon from incorrect criticism following the ebooks lawsuit that Apple lost recently.

For more visit:
http://www.teleread.com/ebooks/amazons-monopoly-is-not-predatory/

Article: Latest on the Timbuktu Library


Recent news reports indicated that fleeing Islamists set the Timbuktu Library in Mali on fire as they fled the approaching French troops. However, the article linked to below indicates that not all has been lost.

For more visit:
http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2013/01/timbuktus-ancient-manuscripts-may-have-been-saved.phtml

Article: The Lost Ebook Backlist


The link below is to an interesting article on the book treasures that are on the digital backlist – somewhere.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/14/ebooks-backlist-titles-bloomsbury-reader

Book Review: Currently Reading – Print is Dead, by Jeff Gomez


I have been reading ‘Print is Dead – Books in our Digital Age,’ by Jeff Gomez. Having just read chapter two, ‘Us and Them,’ I must say that his point in that chapter is well made. The demise in traditional book sales has not been because ebooks have taken the world by storm – at least not at this stage – but because other areas of the digital world have. Generations of younger people have turned away from books in all their forms and have sought entertainment in other things, such as the Internet and video games, to name just a couple. It is reading itself that is being passed by, so the advent of the ebook is not that which is killing off the traditional book and by extension the bookseller/bookshop, but rather ‘dumber’ forms of entertainment.

Books will always be around in one form or another (at least I believe that), whether they remain as prolific as they now are is quite another thing, it is the habit of reading that may fall away dramatically and cause books to be cast aside – at least in the wider community. I think there will always be a group or community of diehard book readers, who eventually will have ebooks as their primary source of books and reading material. There are those who will not be lost entirely to less intellectual forms of entertainment, though perhaps some of these other forms of entertainment may play a role in the ‘reading’ of the future in the digital world (linked to videos, etc). Reading is a great skill that is being lost and the medium for ideas through the ages faces its greatest threat from a lack of it.

The next chapter, ‘newspapers are no longer news,’ deals with newspapers as a source of news and book reviews, or rather, how they are rapidly loosing their ascendency to online applications and tools. In a world that is rapidly changing and access to news as it happens online, newspapers are becoming a too infrequently updated source of news and information. Online access to news and events as they happen are so readily accessible, that the traditional source of news is fading away. As for book reviews, the avenues of discussion about books on the web via social networking, Blogs and the like, opens the opportunity for all to join the discussion. Book reviews in newspapers, like movie reviews, are opportunities for the reviewers to pontificate and/or push their own views onto a public unable to respond – online however the avenues of discussion are legion and varied. All may be involved – or not at all. The decision as to how one may be involved is left to the individual, which also translates to news stories in a similar manner. Interaction with the news and books has never been so simple and as rich an experience.

See also:
http://www.dontcallhome.com/books.html (Website of Jeff Gomez)
Podcast (Excerpts from the Book)
Google Books
Amazon

‘Shameful Flight – The Last Years of the British Empire in India,’ by Stanley Wolpert


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

‘Shameful Flight’ relates the history of the final years of the British Raj in India, including the partition of India into both Pakistan (West and East) and India, and the early hostility of the two new nations destined for perpetual warfare in such regions as the Kashmir.The history of this era of political instability on the subcontinent includes all the main players from Great Britain, India and Pakistan.These main players include Winston Churchill, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah. There is not a single figure in this history of India’s partition who comes out of it in a good light, though several seem to have had very well-intentioned aims and motivations. It is the true story of lost opportunity and the devastating consequences of human pride and selfishness that have reverberated down through the decades to the present day and remain visible in the continuing clashes between India and Pakistan, as well as in the extremism expressed in both the Islamic and Hindu communities throughout the sub-continent. It is a story of perpetual tragedy and human suffering with no end in sight.

This book is extremely easy to read, passes on a wealth of historical information and whets the appetite for further research on the India/Pakistan situation. It provides enlightenment, by bringing understanding to the current political instability in both India and Pakistan, by clearly revealing the root of the problem – the manner of the birth of both nations out of British imperialism and that nation’s final haphazard departure aptly described as a ‘Shameful Flight.’ This is a great book for understanding the sub-continent and the wounds it still carries to this day.

This book was provided to me for review by Oxford University Press – www.oup.com