In those shaky times, I have been thinking about the value of the memoranda of understanding I have been, literally, building on during the past year.
When I first started working on manuscripts, I learned that if you want to publish a transcription or a reproduction of a manuscript, you need the archive’s authorization, and that they usually give it to you if the publication has a scientific purpose. It is only later, in the contact to great archivists, that I sensed that a fruitful work relationship with an archive could work differently and gain a much deeper significance. Even if the paper, the ink, the hidden signs tell you a lot when you are a good manuscript scholar, a great part of the knowledge and understanding of a manuscript comes from its archival history and from the way it took its place in an wider order of things. You have to listen to the archivists tell you how the cannon of their collection constituted itself in order to understand the place each manuscript takes. You have to hear about what is lost and gone as much as about what is still alive. Nothing should, in fact, be taken for granted, because every piece of archive has a peculiar history. It is an interesting reflex of self-preservation that archives necessarily create an archiving of their own memory in order for all this information not to get lost. As much as you could criticize this in a perspective like Foucault’s, in which social codes are at the core of the argument, I think archives can and should be made fruitful in their inner history – and that this is true philology.
In that sense, our memoranda of understanding, and especially those that involve archives, seem to me to be an actualization of philology as a process of acknowledging and transmitting the memory of texts. By memory of texts, I mean on the one hand the way a text made its way through literary history, being maybe ignored in one period of time and worshiped in another. And on the other hand, I also mean the way a text evolved in itself: the ink that faded away, the pieces that are missing because they got lost or because they never were there. You get the first clues to these riddles in the discussion with the archivists. What could matter more, then, than the connection of this knowledge with what I learned as a scholar, and its transmission to a wider audience? This is the logical consequence of accepting to contribute to archival work.
This is the way I interpret our memoranda of understanding, too. They mean to me that archives and scholars do not pursue different aims, but a common one. They mean that we trust one another with a very specific knowledge, knowing that it can bring not just archives and/or scholars a step further, but also a much wider circle of persons. Although the legal value of memoranda of understanding is still a little blurry to me, I consider them a great symbolical bound, a paper trace, an archive if you want, of mutual trust and confidence: an ark.