Joys and mires of American archival work

I limited my archival work to two forays of a fortnight each in the United Kingdom and three U.S. trips, ranging from two to three weeks. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland were the mainstay but I also went to Chicago’s branch of the National Archives, and I visited the Library of Congress in Washington a couple of times. I blitzed my visits, trying to extract as much archival material, in the form of PDFs derived from photographs, as was humanly possible in the times available. I recall those trips as giddying and exhausting. What I now possess from those visits is banks of documents, with little to remind me of the experiences themselves.

Nicholson Baker Baseless

So what a pleasure now to read Nicholson Baker’s stunning new book, Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act. It’s a uniquely construed examination of the dark secrets of the United States, as discovered in archival documents, both declassified (and hence obtainable as I had done) or classified (this explains the subtitle, the need to apply under FOI legislation/rules). I realize the book has a limited audience but hope it gains a wider readership, for it’s a deep, deep dig into what can and can’t be unearthed about a nation’s past, and it’s a wonderfully intelligently structured, crafted, and evoked read.

I am especially taken by Baker’s isolated descriptions of some archival excavation he did at the same places I went to. Here (pp. 100-101):

You have to divest yourself of everything in a locker downstairs in order to enter the charmed spaces of the Archives II Building and get on an elevator to the reading room, which a huge modern research atrium with space for several hundred people. One side of the room is a tall glass wall that looks out on nothing but trees. The furniture is light gray and each desk has a comfortable chair and a light. If you want to photograph declassified documents you must take your box up to a desk where they give you a piece of paper with the declassification number handwritten on it – something like NND917105 – and you slip a piece of red paper in a sheath of plastic hanging from the light at your desk to show that you are photographing documents that are truly declassified and not ones that for one reason should have been withheld from you but were given to you by mistake. At some times of day the sun pours in. In a room on an inside wall are floor-to-ceiling shelves full of three-ring binders – these are finding aids, some old, some new, for various branches of government. Without them researchers have no way of filling out the call slips to get the boxes that hold whatever they’re looking for. … Together we filled out a call slip and I signed it. The clunk of the time stamper meant my call slip was official. The slip went into a little wooden receptacle with everyone else’s. Someone would pull those boxes in the next hour or so. Each scheduled retrieval period was called a “pull,” in fact – there were four or five pulls throughout the day.

Nicholson Baker captures effortlessly what I recall of those archival days now faded in my memory. He snares the essential features of my experience. I was baffled, questing, tense. But I was also at peace amongst that sunlight, the boxes, the photographic click.