The Archivist by Martha Cooley


Matthias Lane is 65 years old and, in every way, seems the very definition of what an archivist would be. He has organized, preserved and maintained control over the very important documents of a prestigious university and loves his work.

T.S. Eliot was well known as a poet and author of the day, his wife Vivienne was committed to an asylum, he converted to Catholicism, and his many letters to Emily Hale, a woman he loved, are part of the sealed correspondence that Matthias has control over. The letters were not to be unsealed until 2020 but their subject of love and emotion are known.

Matthias wife Judith has been committed to an asylum and struggles deeply with the atrocities against the Jews in world war two and with Christianity. Judith’s parents died as a result of the war and she was raised by and Aunt and Uncle who have their own struggles with religion and the persecution of the Jews.

Grad student and poet Roberta Spire comes to Matthias and requests permission to look at the sealed correspondence between Eliot and Hale. Roberta is a poet but her interest in the letters is not just academic. She feels that Eliot’s conversion to Catholicism may help her understand why her parents, when they fled Germany during the war, converted from Judaism to Christianity.  

These stories seem to fold into each other but, in some ways, they are controlled by the hold Matthias has in each of them.  It is Roberta who gets Matthias to open up and feel his own pain and guilt.

The poetry of Eliot is a constant throughout the stories and helps tie the stories together even more. In the end it is letting go of the controls and allowing the truth to not be hidden away that creates an act of trust and connection.

The writing is graceful, and the reader connects with the emotions of the several stories as if it was one story.


“In a few minutes I heard the books' voices: a low, steady, unsupressible hum. I'd heard it many times before. I've always had a finely tuned ear for a library's accumulations of echo and desire. Libraries are anything but hushed.” 

“With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition. ” 

“With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced.”

(People come to the archival profession for many reasons—to tell the story of a community, preserve a piece of history, hold people and institutions accountable, improve access through technology, connect researchers with the documents they need, and more. In this book the history that was preserved was repeated in layers and like situations)