Caryn Radick 2016-11-16 11:07:00
The year is 1980. Anna Roth, an archivist at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, has been charged with convincing reluctant widow Adele Gödel to give her husband Kurt’s papers to IAS. Kurt was a brilliant mathematician whom Adele had met when she worked as a dancer in Vienna in 1928. After they fled the Nazis and Austria, Kurt spent many years at IAS, working alongside Albert Einstein. Anna and Adele’s stories and their cautious friendship are portrayed in Yannick Grannec’s novel The Goddess of Small Victories. When I read The Goddess of Small Victories, I was disappointed in Anna as an archivist. She has no drive, passion, interest, or training for archives, and was offered her job because of family connections. I was curious to know what the current IAS archivist Casey Westerman thought of it. Below, Westerman and I discuss The Goddess of Small Victories, the real life Gödel papers, and his fictional predecessor Anna. CR: When did you first learn of The Goddess of Small Victories? What did you think of it? CW: I learned about the novel a year ago, in my first week as archivist for IAS. A scholar started a conversation about the book, assuming that I’d already read it. I went back to the library, found it on the shelf, and started reading it that day. It took me a while to finish. I have to compare this story to two other novels about collection development. In The Aspern Papers by Henry James and Possession by A.S. Byatt, young scholars use charm and guile to persuade the elderly relatives of dead writers to relinquish those writers’ papers. In Byatt’s book, the manuscript material leads to a surprising secret, but in James’s story, the manuscripts are lost, and the scholar misses his one chance to learn the secrets they contain. Grannec’s novel doesn’t have the suspense or the momentum of those novels, in part because its narrator is never very curious about what Gödel’s papers hold. CR: What would you want readers to know about IAS’s acquisition of the Gödel papers? CW: IAS actually had no archivist in 1980. As Grannec acknowledges in her afterword, Gödel’s papers came to IAS without incident after Adele’s death. The papers were arranged and described by the mathematician John Dawson. At that time, IAS held no faculty papers and had no facilities for archival research, and the papers were deposited at Princeton University’s Firestone Library, where they remain today. CR: What did you think of Anna as an archivist? CW: Although she’s described as an archivist, a research librarian, and the head of the IAS archives, I’m not convinced that she’s any of these things. In the novel she performs none of the duties of an archivist except for collection development—no accessioning, processing, deaccessioning, preservation, reference, fundraising, or advocacy. CR: What can you tell me about Gödel’s papers? CW: There’s a great deal of current interest in Gödel’s papers, largely due to the difficulty of reading them. He used Gabelsberger script, a nineteenth-century German shorthand, to compose fifteen notebooks of logical and philosophical observations. In order to transcribe these notebooks, you need to know German, English, French, and Latin, as well as both Gabelsberger script and mathematical notation. The notebooks famously contain Gödel’s “ontological proof,” which Gödel’s friend Oskar Morgenstern summarized as a proof of the possibility of a proof of the existence of God. While Gödel shared this argument with other Princeton scholars during his lifetime, it didn’t appear in print until 1995. The possibility of other similarly interesting material in his manuscripts has driven an ongoing project to transcribe and publish the rest of his notebooks. CR: Would you recommend The Goddess of Small Victories to other archivists or to a non-archivist audience to give them an idea of what kind of work you do? CW: I think most archivists would be impatient with the archival content of The Goddess of Small Victories, and it wouldn’t be very instructive to someone who was curious about the profession. Byatt and James both wrote about the moral hazards of donor relations, but in Grannec’s novel, collection development is a means to personal growth—and I’ve never met an archivist who collected manuscripts in order to become a healthy and well-adjusted adult!
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