Archival Musings: The Importance of Place
The author suggests pairing this post with The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks. Sweet jams make the musings go down easier.
Independence, Kansas, is a small town located roughly 115 miles southeast of Wichita, Kansas. It is home to just over 9,000 people, a population that has been steadily dwindling since its peak in 1930. Independence is an oil boom-and-bust town; it was home to Sinclair Oil, which was purchased by ARCO, which subsequently left town. Independence has not completely busted, though; while it has many items of interest in town, my experience with Independence involves a particular archival collection held within the Independence Community College Library.
The William Inge Collection holds the manuscripts, correspondence, ephemera, books, and record collection of William Inge. Inge was born in 1913 in Independence and attended Independence Community College. He went on to become a successful playwright and screenwriter, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his play Picnic and an Academy Award for his screenplay Splendor in the Grass. Following Splendor in the Grass, however, Inge enjoyed only minor successes. Convinced he could no longer write, Inge fell into a deep depression, eventually committing suicide in 1973.
After his death, the Independence community wished to honor Inge and keep his legacy alive. The William Inge Center for the Arts was formed at ICC and in 1981 began hosting the William Inge Theater Festival, where a living American playwright is honored each year. Video tributes were made, meaning interviews with some of the most influential American playwrights of the last 60 years including Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, and Stephen Sondheim are on tape as part of the collection.
Independence Community College Library Inge Reading Room
The paper-based assets of the collection are of course accessible in person, but there is a limited web presence to let scholars or other interested parties know they exist; the video interviews are in a similar situation, but are completely inaccessible due to their formats. As we know, the preservation and access of archival materials, especially audiovisual ones, is an expensive endeavor. ICC is one of two community colleges in the poorest county in a state currently plagued by massive budget cuts. Many possible solutions to the budget issue have been floated, including an extremely unpopular one — finding a new home for the collection.
Think about it. A well-funded academic institution with a large performing arts program could benefit immensely from having such a collection. And the collection could be more widely accessible with the financial support of such an institution. But something would be lost, too. Experiencing what Inge experienced, meeting the people who have shaped the collection, and the sense of place and community would all be lost.
Archives don’t archive. People archive. Without a community to assign meaning, the contents of archives lack a purpose. Who better to help assign meaning than the community that helped to create it? Inge attributed his understanding of human nature to growing up in Independence, saying “I’ve often wondered how people raised in our great cities ever develop any knowledge of humankind. People who grow up in small towns get to know each other so much more closely than they do in cities.”(1) This understanding of small towns greatly influenced Inge’s characters and plots. I can say for sure that I understand the collection far more fully by having visited ICC and spoken with its caretakers than I would have by visiting a different institution.
Of course, being able to visit Independence was a privilege and the end goal would be to get much of the material online to expand access. However, if the materials remain at ICC, their eventual online presence would be shaped by those who helped shape Inge himself. And the relationship goes both ways — the town that influenced Inge continues to be influenced by him. The community cares deeply about their connection to Inge and his works. High school students tape the workshops that occur during the Festival. Volunteers store those tapes in their homes and create digital access copies on their own time. People generously give their time each year to ensure the Festival celebrating their native son does him proud. The community is invested in the collection and that is reflected in its character.
The William Inge Collection belongs in Independence. Hopefully, with the right institutional buy-in combined with grants, the collection will be able to be digitized and shared online with a wider audience. This is an important collection that should be made accessible to scholars, researchers, playwrights, actors, directors, and fans. But moving it would compromise its meaning, as well as that of the community that helped create it.
(1) Oakes, E. H. (2004). American Writers. New York: Facts on File, Inc.