Recently there was a flurry of to-and-froing on the SHARP listserv about the problem of why publishers are so casual about archiving their records.

You have to be a researcher not an employee of a publishing company even to ask that question. The cruel fact is that for publishers the past has almost no relevance to their ongoing operations. It takes an odd corporate self-regard to make the assumption as a young struggling company that some time in the future there will be a wish to compile your corporate history. Why would anyone keep old stuff, other than contracts, which never get discarded? We just cannot afford to hang on to stacks of paper. In recent years I have experienced a failure to locate an author’s address anywhere in the organization; people move on or move house. We were also unable on more than one occasion to discover who had printed a book which was less than ten years old. We ended up calling around printers — luckily they keep better records than we do! As to who copyedited a particular book, or made its index — don’t even bother. Periodically office services would come around with instructions to weed out 50% of the paper you were storing in files. To do this in any sensible way takes time, costs money. Some employees will just chuck out 50% of the file folders in their filing cabinets. The more responsible among us may try to make this the older half, but even that takes time. Weeding out surplus papers file by file takes hours. In case people out there don’t know — publishing employees have no time for anything other than banging out those books.

A couple of years ago the researcher working on a history of Oxford University Press came around the office looking for archival material. We weren’t able to take up much of his time — and I rather suspect that this won’t really harm the book. Unsurprisingly there’s advice out there on managing business archives, but I fear most publishing ears are deaf to such sensible appeals. As Andrew Brown said in the SHARP exchange “many publishers, sympathetic towards their fellow human beings, attempt to protect them from the plethora of information that would otherwise flood their existence. We do not need to know all that we might know, we do not need to know that Hemingway’s publisher appreciated the difference between a barracuda and a sardine, let authors and their publishers rest in relative peace.” Amen.

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