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.”
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?
I’ve become all too accustomed to seeing headlines about “long-lost” manuscripts that have been found.
For example, in 2012 twoarticles 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.
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attention on the talented archivists now employed by so many institutions, I was saddened that it perpetuated the outdated image of archivists as preservers of dusty, precious artifacts maintained in a cloistered environment.”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.
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].“
My first job as a trainee reporter was on a Sunday title. Sundays are a breed apart. We had contempt for our daily sister, were drunk until Thursday and staffed by some of some of the oddest journalists in town. Unsurprisingly, the paper doesn’t exist any more.
There is a different rhythm to newsgathering. Much of the Sunday paper has to be away early, with stories that won’t date. Front page leads have to be exclusives, it’s just too risky relying on events to bail you out – even in Northern Ireland in the 1980s where I was working. This is one reason why the sting and the “kiss-and-tell” are among Sunday staples.
If you are a Sunday paper news editor, you live in fear that the splash (the front page story) you have been nursing all week will leak to another title. The news business is a kleptocracy, and colleagues on your sister title are the enemy. All’s fair in love, war and newsgathering.
Promiscuous Sunday readers
Sunday newspaper readers are different, too. They still have a little time on their hands, and a desire to be entertained. They will frequently buy titles at odds with their daily habits: Guardian readers flirting with the Sunday Times; Sun readers, bereft of the News of the World, picking up the Sunday Mirror or heading “upmarket” to the Mail on Sunday.
Sunday is also the day readers are tempted to take a second title; and in those parts of the UK the BBC euphemistically calls “the nations and the regions”, indigenous papers rub shoulders with the big London players from what is still called Fleet Street.
But as the economics of publishing a newspaper become increasingly challenging, stand-alone titles published once a week look like a luxury to the accountants who now run media organisations. So seven-day operations make sense. In 2012, Rupert Murdoch replaced the discredited News of the World with a Sunday edition of the Sun.
Heritage, politics and independent views
Newsquest executives in Scotland came to the same conclusion when they announced in August that the Herald – its daily broadsheet – was to run seven days a week. The victim was the Sunday Herald, then without an editor.
In normal circumstances, that would have been that. But this is Scotland, and Scotland is not normal. Newsquest’s problem was the Sunday Herald’s editorial support for Scottish independence. Taken down that road by its urbane editor, Richard Walker, the Sunday Herald was the lone media voice supporting independence in the 2014 referendum. Walker went on to become founding editor of the National – designed to tap into nationalist sentiment after the independence referendum.
Although the Herald claims to be neutral on independence – even the dogs in the street know where it sits on the issue. It may not wear a sash and a bowler hat, but it is temperamentally unionist.
With the SNP now established as the natural party of government in Scotland, and with a second independence referendum on the political agenda, killing off the only Sunday in favour of Scotland as a sovereign nation would have displayed a distinct lack of pragmatism.
So, against the tide of consolidation, Newsquest’s single title was replaced by two. Say hello to the “neutral” Herald on Sunday in a racy tabloid livery, and the Sunday National – with Richard Walker again as launch editor.
What the papers say
It’s a brave move for both titles. It is notoriously difficult to persuade readers to change their habits. Can a Herald reader who is wedded to the Observer or Mail on Sunday be seduced back? And what about the fledgling National? It’s tough out there.
The journalism is solid, but – in the first two weeks at least – neither generated the front pages they needed to compete effectively. Rule 101 of a launch edition is to have an exclusive. The Herald’s “Lifeline to Scotland’s islands in jeopardy” did not cut it. The Sunday National led on “Boris ‘set to go for PM’ … and trigger Indyref2”. Billed as an “exclusive”, it was one of those exclusives nobody else would want.
Inside, the National was pacier than the Herald. Even Sundays need news, and it delivered. The internet sensation “giggling granny” was a classic Sunday read, and Jennifer Johnston’s big spread on Scotland’s postcode lottery for primary one parents deserved its prominence.
Foreign correspondent David Pratt brings insight, gravitas and an international perspective to the Sunday National’s broadsheet Seven Days section; its news and features agenda is not quite as unremittingly politically driven as the daily, though Nicola Sturgeon got star billing.
The Herald suffers most from the transition. In tabloid form, it’s like an ageing uncle wearing a baseball cap. The daily broadsheet can sell a story; on the tabloid, the squeezed-in lead barely makes a splash. Inside, the flow of news and features is clunky. “The Week” section, opening the paper, is a mess. A spread on Strictly Come Dancing up front jarred, and the big read on pages six and seven kills the pace up front.
That may change as the paper settles down. But it should be taken as a warning not to mess with the format of the daily, especially if trying to align the titles.
Oddly, both share the same sports coverage and an unbranded Sunday Life supplement. The National needs it to bulk up. It’s a catch-all lifestyle supplement that doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose. The papers also share David Pratt – a great journalist, but sharing writers and sections muddies the waters. Sundays need to be individualistic.
At their best, Sundays are distinctive, tribal and totally attuned to their readers. If they are to carve out a place for themselves, these two new Sundays are going to have to do more to break exclusives that set the agenda for the week ahead – and give Scottish readers the excuse they need to change their buying habits.