It started here.

If you were to look at my bookshelf right now, you would no doubt find an eclectic assortment of things, gathered and built and purchased and traded over the last two decades. But there's one book on my shelf that has a longer history than the others. Its an unassuming tome, bound in red book cloth that's getting a little worn at the edges. Stamped on its cover and spine with gold foil are the words Nancy MacIntyre: A Tale of the Prairies.

This is a book with a past.

The story of Nancy begins in 1916, when a soldier named Felix picked up a used copy on his way to enlist in the army. Returning home after the war, he read the book aloud to friends and family, and soon built up a collection of fellow "lovers of Nancy." But as Nancy's popularity grew, finding new copies got harder and harder. So Felix published a special edition, and spent the last decade of his life carefully choosing the friends and family worthy of their own personalized copy.

There were 1800 in all, and Felix documented every single one of them by hand in a collection of four tiny journals, always noting the name of each recipient, their address, and how he met them.

Each copy contained the following instructions: "You are to read this book ALOUD to yourself and your family. Then you are to read it ALOUD to a few carefully chosen friends on certain occasions when the time is appropriate. Thus, you will repay your debt to an important era in American civilization. With all good wishes, Felix Harris."

Felix was my great-grandfather, and his original copy of Nancy sits alongside mine on my book shelf. Stacked next to them are three of his original journals, where they rest on top of a collection of hundreds of letters sent by Nancy's grateful recipients.

While I grew up hearing some general family lore about Felix and Nancy, most of what I know of my great grandfather comes from this collection of papers. Everyone who had known Felix was dead by the time I was old enough to appreciate his story, so as a kid I would crawl into the attic and pore over Felix's journal entries, or read the letters people had sent him. I wanted to understand the ancestor who would undertake such an interesting life's work. And I wanted to inhabit the bygone world where large groups of people gathered after dinner to listen to Felix recite passages from Nancy instead of watching television, and where Nancy's recipients wrote letters of thanks instead of emails.

The key to answering these questions lay in a pile of dusty books and papers. And so began my fascination with the archive. My interest has shifted and changed over the years, but I am still interested not only in what motivates us to archive something, but the processes we use to extract meaningful narrative from them later down the road. And I wonder how our shift from physical archives like Felix's, to digital archives like my own, changes the landscape for all of us.

[One of my ongoing projects during graduate school has been to write and design a book documenting the story of Felix and Nancy MacIntyre.]