Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Encounters with the Original

There is nothing like encountering an original.

In the 1990s, while working as a full-time archivist in a local repository, a fabulous donation came across my desk. I remember opening an envelope and pulling out letters written by Thomas Jefferson, General Lafayette, and other famous men from United States history. My hands shook. My whole body shook as I kept myself from running across the library to the office of my boss to tell her of our acquisition.

I touched history and it was electrifying.

Letter by Marquis de Lafayette dated 1831 with translation.
Courtesy Waltham Public Library, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Touching the original gave me a physical connection to the amazing characters I had read about in texts. Imagining these men sitting at their desks and putting their quills to these pieces of paper stimulated my senses. Thinking about how these papers survived time in someone's attic to arrive on my desk almost 300 years later was mind boggling. They were simple letters of thanks, politics, and an order for supplies. Things change. Things stay the same. We are all tied by a common thread of humanity highlighted in the day-to-day activities that keep us all going.

I was reminded today of the value of encountering the original, though in this case it wasn't actually physically touching a unique piece of history. An article announced that the "Final set of Tudor and Stuart state secrets goes online today." Then I found an article announcing that among these materials are Henry VIII's Love Letters to Anne Boleyn. I grew woozy again. I wanted to run to my someone to tell them of my remarkable find. But, alas, I work in a home office and no one else was home. I had to satisfy myself with tweeting and Facebooking. (If "archive" can be used as a verb, as in "archiving," so can Facebook!)

Henry VIII has always been a fascination of mine. I cannot say that I am a "fan," but his unique life and the distinct changes in society that took place after his reign have excited my brain cells for years. I had never seen a letter written by the King. I had never thought to look for them quite honestly. The good archivists at the National Archives of the UK, like so many forward thinking archivists, were busy preparing their treasure trove for easy access through digitization. Seeing Henry's beautiful handwriting was indeed a treat. Thinking about his "love letters," despite the unusual circumstances of the affair, invited parallels once again to that thread of humanity I envision. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I tweeted about a modern set of love letters that has been digitized by the Houston Library. (Ah, l'amour!)

Perhaps one day I'll get to touch an actual royal letter. For now, I'm satisfied with getting to see it.

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