Beauty in the Empty Archive

Sabbath Poem VIII [selected piece]

The truth will never be complete
in any mind or time.  It will never
be reduced to an explanation.
What you have is only a sack of fragments
never to be filled:  old bones, fossils,
facts, scraps of writing, sprawls of junk.
You know yourself only poorly and in part,
the best and the worst may be forgotten.
However you arrange the pieces, however
authentic, a story is what you’ll have,
an artifact, for better or worse.
So go ahead.  Gather your findings into
a plausible arrangement.  Make a story.
Show how love and joy, beauty and goodness
shine out amongst the rubble.

– Wendell Berry

Yesterday morning I read this poem and its message resonated with my recent work in the archives.

No matter how full Weldon Library is lately, I have found the archives virtually empty.  It might be the funky smell of petrifying artifacts (or archivists) or the fact that you have to place everything but your pencil in a locker.  Whatever the case, it is clear that the perception of the archives at Western among the majority of students is no different than the perception of the kid that gets picked last in gym class.  If only they understood the beauty of reading Fire Insurance Plans, Tax Assessment Rolls and City Directories, they might think twice about passing it by for more FaceBook friendly “study” spaces.

For the last few weeks, the archives have transformed into my second residence as I research the history of a particular home in the SoHo district of London, Ontario.  Bringing the aforementioned documents into the light of day (or the fluorescent light of the archives…), blowing off the dust, and piecing together fragments of information about a house for which I have no personal attachment was initially a challenge.

However, Fire Insurance Plans revealed a number of property changes over the course of a century, and created a number of questions:  When and why did the owners put in that addition to the west wall?  Was the garage used for a mechanic’s shop?  Who made the decision to establish new property lines in 1915?

A century of City Directories illuminated certain answers but again created far more questions.    Charles A. W—–, a mechanic owned the house in the 1960s, but a painter by the name of Charles L. W—–, owned the house from 1890 to 1955.  (Charles A. W—– appears to be the son, given that his name is in the earlier directories at the same address)  How did this transition come about?  What was the relationship between Charles A. and Charles L.?  The earliest Directory reveals a painter by the name of Edward W—–, the original owner of the home.  When did he decide to settle in London?  What led him to becoming a painter?  How did he pass on the home to his son, Charles?

The pictures, names, dates, property lines, fire insurance maps found in the archives provide what Berry calls “a sack of fragments never to be filled.”  In this respect, it is likely I will never know the entire truth about this place.  But as I piece together the fragments into “a plausible arrangement”, what emerges is a new artifact: a story of three generations of families rooted in this place.  Whether or not this is a beautiful artifact is yet to be seen, but it all unfolds before me in an empty archive.


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