Materiality on a Scooter (@ Ribaltone’s with Toni Bernhart)

When I was 12, I discovered in an old family house (which used to be, in the 18th century or so, a post house) a whole bunch of papers – pictures, household accounts, letters – retracing the family history. I put it all in a trunk and thought I should either bring it to the local archive (but was afraid they would not take it because it was not so old and not so interesting) or at least protect them from decay, cold, heat, rain, fire… When I next considered actually taking care of it a few years later, dormice had brought their food and loot in the trunk and pretty much  everywhere in the room under the roof I had left the trunk in. My mother had thrown everything away months before – imagine stinking rotten eggs left in a closed room for months, with the summer’s heat warming the roof…

Deep inside of me, I am still convinced that my mother could have saved some of the material, if she had really wanted to. Part of me refuses to accept that the connection to our direct family history (though I honestly have little in common with those 19th century peasants and their struggles to sell their probably not so good wine) is now abstract, where it could have been palpable. What does materiality really mean, when it comes to archives? Should it be a purely individual, emotional access to the old piece of paper, or should it be made part of some kind of general interest? Should you be able to borrow old manuscripts from archives and bring them home on your scooter, or should they be left in their sanctuary?

Toni Bernhart and I discussed this yesterday when we started talking about the August Boeckh papers. I told him how difficult (and, in the end, expensive) it had turned out to be to spot and list the Boeckh papers (even only the ones that are in Berlin). My initial idea to take Boeckh as an exemplary corpus and to reconstruct the totality of his Nachlass in order to make it an actually tillable field for generations of scholars to come – well, it is not working  as smoothly as I had figured first. It is confronted to the fact that a random, but probably not irrelevant part of this corpus is private property. On the one hand, I understand the Boeckh family for not wanting to give away their precious treasures. On the other hand, they only want the materiality of it, and this is not really what I am looking for in the first place: I don’t want the book, I want its content – I want to see, for instance, which handwritten commentaries the margins contain (ah! the margins! I will tell you about encoding those at some point!). So I was all in all pretty happy when I discussed with Mrs. Angela Boeckh the possibility of digitizing some of it (and here goes another funding application…). But Toni Bernhart felt about that much stronger than me, saying that, especially when it comes to preserving the materiality, the only place valuables should be is a big archive like the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. He had a good point really. Of course, there could be a world war and it could all be destroyed. But it would actually take a world war – and not dormice.

The Osteria Ribaltone is an awesome restaurant, on the Viktoria-Luise-Platz in Berlin-Schöneberg. So appreciated that you really have to make a reservation if you want to be sure to get a table!

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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1 Response

  1. 19/03/2012

    […] have already mentioned August Boeckh several times in the past (here, here and here for instance), but never presented the importance of the Boeckh part in the big picture of my […]

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