Inside Mr. Burgess: diary of an archivist, part two
The second part of Veronika Schubert’s article on her work placement in the Burgess Foundation archives.
Three months ago, sitting on the coach to Manchester, I wondered what my work placement at the Burgess Foundation would be like and which would be my tasks, and I was hoping to learn as much as possible about the work of an archivist. Now, three months later, I have things to tell.
From what I learned during the last three months, being an archivist means: take a pile of stuff and turn it into a coherent collection accessible for the public.
The latest project in the Burgess Foundation archive is the correspondence: several cardboard boxes brimming with random letters sent to Burgess over five decades. My task is to help the archive assistant go through all of them, free them from rusty staples and paper clips, read them, and gather them in folders according to what kind they are.
There are personal letters from family, friends and fellow authors, publisher’s correspondence, queries from translators and students, notes from secretaries and hotel receptionists, bills and contracts, Christmas cards, postcards and business cards, facsimiles and telegrams, and even empty envelopes.
Last but definitely not least, there is fan mail, which to me, is the most interesting part. Many fans simply ask for an autograph or a personally signed photo. Others express their genuine admiration for Burgess as an author. Some might comment on factual or spelling mistakes in his books, articles, interviews, and then there are those who criticise his allegedly blasphemous attitude towards Christianity. There are authors who send him their book asking for a favourable review. And every now and then, somebody writes to him, because they feel deeply understood in reading his books, and they will tell a little about themselves, often about the difficult situation they are in at the moment.
All those letters make me wonder, what would my own fan letter to my favourite author be like? How would I address them? Would I try to be witty and ironic, showing that I was above such a thing as openly admiring somebody, although, in fact, I was doing just that? Would I trust them enough to tell them about personal things? And would I mind if my letter was kept in an archive and read by archivists?
And then, after a day spent with old letters, I leave the archive. It is dark and cold outside, and often windy. Sometimes I take the bus home. Sometimes I walk and let the wild weather sweep all the ancient archive dust out of my brain. Welcome back in the present!
A version of this article appeared in Back View magazine.