December 19, 2010

Traces Left Behind

(Inspired by India’s post about David Hoyt and the letter and the bloodstained map.)

Years ago, in connection with a historical exhibition I curated, I organized a body of the Chicago Public Library’s archives that contained library correspondence and other papers of a man named Carl Roden, who from 1918 to 1950 served as chief of the city’s library system and died in 1956.

Now you do this sort of work and have any sensitivity, you often find yourself growing fond of the dead whose dead letters you sort, and I formed an attachment to Mr. Roden. Such were the times that a number of people apparently regarded the Chief Librarian of a large metropolitan library system as a wise man. You would be astounded at the queries that came his way — many of which he answered directly in a distinctive voice and with a droll wit. I came to regard him as a favorite great-uncle.

One day as my work on Roden’s papers was drawing to a close, I discovered one of those personal items that we all have lurking somewhere in our work correspondence. It was a typed draft of a statement he evidently intended for his family, and it was by way of an apology for bungling financial affairs. He wrote of various bad investments he had made and so on. It was painful to read.

Scrawled in pencil in the margin of the typewritten draft were the words:

But know that I loved you very much.

I rested my head in my hands and sobbed.


  1. Rick Neece on December 19th, 2010 at 2:49 pm


  2. Sheila Ryan on December 19th, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    The archivist’s lot is not a happy one, oftimes.

    Whether the papers belong to the long-dead or the recently departed, it can be sad.

    Working with the soon-to-depart or their friends and family — or friends and family of the recently departed — that can be sad, too.

    You get to thinking about things.

  3. Sheila Ryan on December 19th, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Sometimes I indulge in fantasies. I wonder, If I rearranged this series of correspondence, could I effect a change and could I make the story turn out better for this person?

  4. Carole Corlew on December 19th, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    This makes me teary, too. How could you not be affected, working with the very things of someone like that. Especially someone so appealing? And the note in the margin, does that mean his family never saw it? Never, ever?

    The Iowan’s father, a lawyer, kept all correspondence. And the Iowan took many of the files. So many things, copies of bills paid, letters to the editor. Also real gems. From his sisters, who had been babysitting the Iowan, who was 4. “Dear mom and dad: Jimmy is sleeping in your bed. He said mom didn’t make his bed up good enough. He cried about it so we let him. Love, S. and A.”

  5. Carole Corlew on December 19th, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Now that is an idea, rearranging the correspondence of someone and affecting a positive change for someone. I really like that one.

  6. Sheila Ryan on December 19th, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    I have no idea whether the man’s family ever saw any version of what he wrote them. He and they were long gone by the time I worked with his “official” library correspondence.

    But I tell you, an archivist works within a weird sort of borderland between the living and the dead. I could tell you stories.

    But I am afraid that rearranging the chronological sequence of correspondence has no effect that extends beyond the imagination of the re-arranger. Still, it is an idea I have toyed with in terms of an epistolary novel.

  7. Sheila Ryan on December 19th, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    [Memo to self: Tell flockers and friends about the correspondence of Ida Craddock.]

  8. Carole Corlew on December 19th, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    That’s what I mean, a novel, etc. I would be happy to hear about Ida.