Losing Control of the Wheel

Posted on 28 July 2009 at 5:40 pm in Musings.

I recently read about the dismantling of the Engineering Library at the Chrysler Technical Center. Stories like that are always sad; what is lost can never be recovered or rebuilt. With the advancements in digital archiving and paperless storage, archives need never be destroyed; even if a company like Chrysler, or its ownership group, blanches at the cost of maintaining a library, historic documents can almost always find a home at a museum or research institution. Was the University of Michigan even contacted before the library was shuttered and its archives given out in piecemeal?

Technology has changed the game for archivists. The destruction of Ashurbanipal’s Library at Nineveh was inevitable with the changing tides of Empire. Locals were still pilfering the stones of Ashurbanipal’s palace thousands of years later when assyriologist and adventurer George Smith arrived to extract the clay cuneiform tablets that make up the majority of our knowledge of the ancient Assyrians. The fiery demise of the Great Library of Alexandria was also inevitable in an age when urban fires were a daily reality in the overcrowded cities of Antiquity. But we live in a different era: the only threat to the record of our past is our own negligence. The cost of preserving that library — or finding a research institution to donate it to, without dismantling the collection — is a pittance compared to the factory costs and other overhead at a corporation like Chrysler.

The history of the automobile is one of the vital stories of American history. While I’ve never been a car aficionado (I’m more seduced by the click and hum of a freewheel and gears — the quiet grace of the bicycle — than by the cough and sputter of the internal combustion engine), you can’t look at the 20th century without an appreciation of the automobile’s influence. It has irrevocably changed and suburbanized American culture and had a powerful jump-start effect on the mid-century American economy (both in the twenties and fifties). To lose documentation of those eras is to lose control of the wheel.

You can never look forward if you can’t look behind. Hopefully Chrysler’s remaining archives, and the comparable archives at General Motors, will be preserved.

Thanks to KB for the tip.

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1 Comment

  1. Comment by LLK on July 29, 2009 at 4:05 am.

    Oh, it hurt just to read about that. Heart-wrenching for the Chrysler archivist, especially. :(

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