The secrets of the dead

Kafka and the Mechanics Institutes

Sun Sep 29 2019 21:32:07 GMT+1000 (Australian Eastern Standard Time)

Earlier this year, two unrelated articles about archives left me with a lot of unanswered questions. The first was Australian Common Reader, a database of circulation records from Australian libraries from the mid nineteenth century to 1928. This project was celebrated in the Australian media in June, and was initiated with an Australian Research Council grant in 2008. Julieanne Lamond, the project manager at ANU, was quoted in the Guardian as saying her wish was to make the project 'revolutionary', and it is indeed both fascinating and unique. Australian Common Reader provides a window into the reading habits of people in 'regional' Australia in a key period in the creation of the white settler federation. It combines two thing - digital humanities research, and libraries - that are very Relevant To My Interests. Yet as I read about it, rather than being excited I found this project deeply troubling.

Australian Common Reader is precisely the sort of database many librarians have feared and gone to great lengths to avoid being possible. The project's home page encourages visitors to "...search the database filtering by library, occupation and gender of borrowers, or use the search bar to look for specific books or borrowers" (my emphasis). The 'circulation records' stored in this database aren't aggregate statistics. No attempt has been made to 'de-identify' borrowers. This is literally a database of the entire borrowing records of thousands of individual people over years. This is the sort of thing that Zoia Horn went to prison, and the Connecticut Four went to court, to prevent. Inspired by these librarians and others, in 2016 I made a simple proof-of-concept for a circulation system that enables tailored reading recommendations but deletes borrowers' loans history. The ability to "look for specific books or borrowers" in order to match them to each other is quite specifically what I was aiming to prevent.

The researchers behind Australian Common Reader would, of course, point out that their project has nothing to do with present day library borrowers. The library users in their database are deceased, so it is no longer possible for the state to restrict their intellectual freedom. This is all very logical, but I don't find it completely convincing. I'm not necessarily saying that this is a bad project, and I'm sure there was a proper ethics review completed before the project started. But still, it seems a bit ...off.

A couple of months later, the National Library of Israel announced that it had secured the last of Franz Kafka's personal papers, after a protracted legal case involving plaintiffs in Germany and Switzerland. The news article I read highlighted the legal case, pitching the story as one of Israel as the 'rightful' owner of the Kafka archive, recovering stolen property. Yet again, something about this story didn't seem right to me:

As he battled with tuberculosis in an Austrian sanatorium, Kafka, a German-speaking Jew from Prague, asked his close friend Max Brod to destroy all his letters and writings.

After Kafka’s death, in 1924, Brod, also Jewish, felt he could not carry out his friend’s wishes and in 1939 fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia for Tel Aviv, carrying the writer’s papers in a suitcase.

The reason this archival material could be stolen from Tel Aviv to later turn up back in central Europe is because "Brod felt he could not carry out his friend's wishes". The archive the National Library of Israel spent twelve years trying to recover shouldn't even exist. The NLI blog post celebrating this event includes a rather self-serving contextual note:

The Kafka papers are considered to be an integral part of the Max Brod Archive, and the larger collection of materials relating to the ‘Prague Circle’, of which Brod and Kafka were members. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of personal archives of leading Israeli and Jewish writers, intellectuals and public figures, including most of the other members of the group, whose writings indicate the hope that their papers would ultimately be preserved at the National Library in Jerusalem.

Does it really matter what "most other members of the group" wanted? Kafka didn't want his papers to "ultimately be preserved" anywhere - he explicitly told Brod to burn all his papers, and instead Brod gathered them up and added them to the archive now named after himself. Were Brod's actions justified by his belief that Kafka was an important writer whose thinking needed to be understood in the future? Can we not appreciate Kafka's books without having read his personal papers?

I don't have easy answers for these questions. But how we treat the dead says a lot about how we treat the living. If we violate the privacy of the dead because they will never know, it becomes easier to violate the privacy of the living, if we think they probably won't find out. If we ignore the wishes of the dead in order that the collective may benefit, it becomes easier to override the wishes of the living, as long as we can argue that it's for the greater good. This is why we should also be wary of those who want to tell exclusively positive stories about archives, libraries, and other memory institutions. These places are, in Ellen Broad's memorable phrase about AI, "made by humans" - with all the same foibles and weaknesses. If archives and libraries are made an end unto themselves, and then glorified as unquestionably good, this end can be seen to justify all sorts of means. So we should keep asking questions - especially when the answers don't come easily.