Dimitrije Mitrinović’s working papers form an important part of his archive, and have been the focus of my cataloguing recently. The Foundation charged with caring for Mitrinović’s legacy and encouraging the study of his ideas, the New Atlantis Foundation (now the Mitrinović Foundation), kept over 80 notebooks of all sizes and shapes, alongside boxes and boxes of loose sheets of handwritten notes. They contain Mitrinović’s thoughts on a whole range of subjects, names of authors whose books he was reading and people in his extensive and ever-shifting networks. Some have drafts of poems or a few bars of music sitting beside notes of petty cash expenditure!
At some stage after Mitrinović’s death, possibly in the late 1960s, the New Atlantis Foundation sorted the many loose sheets of notes into categories according to their completeness and length. They range from drafts of recognisable pieces of work (e.g. articles for New Britain Quarterly), to an address to Winston Churchill concerning Yugoslavia and the Second World War, to scraps with single, isolated words or phrases. I must confess that my heart sank when I saw that they had created a category for material they deemed “illegible”! Luckily it proved to be a mercifully small file…
Mitrinović often wrote his notes on scrap paper, which could be anything from a flattened cigarette pack to a title page, cover or jacket removed from a book. He was a librarian’s worst nightmare in terms of mangling publications, but his habits should help any researcher interested in his influences. There are pieces of letterhead, lecture programmes and other documents originally created for the various organisations Mitrinović founded or was involved with. Pieces of correspondence also turn up – not just the backs of envelopes, but whole letters were seized by Mitrinović to get his ideas down on paper. Together with his numerous pocket-sized notebooks, and reuse of diaries and address books to scribble down his thoughts, the archive creates a picture of a man with a brain that was always active, restlessly churning over political, spiritual and philosophical matters; always planning the next group he would establish, who would be in it, who might write for a publication he was working on.
It isn’t only Mitrinović whose character and activities are illuminated by these sources. It would have been easy for the New Atlantis Foundation to dispose of all this rough material, difficult as it is to categorise and use. Yet they chose to keep even the smallest scraps and annotations. They created a category for “single words in isolation.” They even went to the trouble of creating fair copies of some documents. Evidently they saw great value here. This reverence reminds me a bit of the treatment given to a saint’s relics. Did the notes carry some of the power of a man the trustees of the Foundation revered? Were they retained to ensure no pearl of wisdom slipped away?
Archivists are trained to make decisions about which records get kept and what material is discarded – a process known as appraisal. Rough notes like these might typically be weeded out. When I initially saw them in the Mitrinović archive, I questioned why they had been kept. Having given the matter further thought and got to know the collection, I now see great value in this part of the archive and hope that my catalogue descriptions of these files encourage researchers to make good use of a somewhat tricky source.