Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Truth, Facts, and Stories

There was a time when archivists seemed to pay attention to new treatises on historical method and the nature of evidence, but, judging by the current nature of archival literature, that day has passed. Where we once used to find regularly essays on this topic, often as review essays, now seems filled with articles on archival method and practice. This shift may be the result of historians, sociologists, and other scholars beginning to write about archives or the archive in deep and meaningful ways outside of the mainstream archival literature. However, books keep appearing on the nature of historical evidence that archivists ought to read. Two new books on the use of personal narratives, or memoirs, suggest the value of such reading, and since archives are filled with diaries, journals, and memoirs these are worthy of some attention by archivists.

Jennifer Jensen Wallach, “Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact’: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008) is a focused effort to explore the value of memoirs as important historical sources, arguing that “life writing has the potential to enrich our historical understanding in ways that cannot be replicated in any other single source material” (p. 4). Wallach, a historian, explains how these sources are both historical and literary, and therein is where we can discover their usefulness, providing a different window into the past. Wallach believes that “skillfully written memoirs, which were designed to be not only historical documents but also works of art, are uniquely able to capture the felt experience of living in history” (p. 10). Such an idea connects with other recent ideas about capturing aspects of the past not always captured in traditional sources and, as a result, often ignored by historians – such as sound and other sensory experiences.

Wallach acknowledges that uncovering the past is a difficult process, and a subjective one, as are memoirs as evidence of the past. “When historians analyze the testimony of historical witnesses (regardless of the form these testaments take, whether published memoirs, private diaries, or oral history interviews),” she muses, “they must try to ascertain the truthfulness of their informants and also must evaluate the reliability of their informants; memory. Memoir is at the crossroads of memory and history, and it contains elements of both” (p. 30). And Wallach suggests that comprehending the value of memoirs depends on comparing them to other documentary sources: “The way the past is remembered is often at odds with what really happened. It is the job of the historian, or the scholar of the historical study of memoirs, to compare memoirs and other historical documents in order to compose as complete and as verifiable a depiction of a historical moment as possible” (pp. 33-34).

As Wallach stresses that memoirs are “grounded in real people, places, and things” (p. 50), she keeps her study focused on six memoirists reflecting on one historical case. She provides interesting case studies on African Americans and White Americans reflecting on the Jim Crow era – Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Willie Morris, Lillian Smith, and William Alexander Percy. In some of these cases, Wallach considers how the memoirs connect to other documentary sources; considering Percy’s memoir, Wallach writes, “it seems likely that a historian could get a better feel for what happened on Percy’s plantation by studying plantation records than by reading Percy’s self-interested accounts. Instead, the historical study of memoirs attempts to reveal the emotional experience of the individual actor” (p. 125). For archivists, administering and describing their holdings, this should suggest that what they hold is but one part of a larger documentary universe necessary for describing, and sometimes understanding, the past.

Another volume -- Mary Jo Maynes, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Barbara Laslett, Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008) – brings an interdisciplinary perspective, with two sociologists (Pierce, Laslett) and a historian (Maynes), on the matter of personal narratives as historical evidence. These scholars provide a good discussion of various theoretical perspectives on the use of personal narratives, emphasizing how such narratives are useful for understanding individual agency and how individuals view themselves in social context and over time.

These authors note how often personal narratives are written in reaction to events of the time, and why they are so useful, if used carefully, for providing insights into understanding these events. “The value of personal narrative analyses lies in their potential to see people and their actions as both individual and social,” they write, “and to understand human lives as governed simultaneously according to the dynamics and temporalities of the individual life course and of collective histories” (p. 69). They also evaluate different forms of personal narratives, each offering different kinds of evidence, namely oral histories, autobiographies and memoirs, letters, dairies, and journals.

With the interdisciplinary view these authors collaborate on, their volume is especially useful in sorting out the relationship of analysts with personal narratives. They argue, “The main power that life history narrators have in the research relationship is the power to talk or write about their lives, or to remain silent; to reveal truths as they see them, or to distort or lie about them. Their interest, if they are at all inclined to tell a life story, is to have theirs be the version of history preserved, and told to a well-chosen, relatively influential, or well-connected listener or other selected audience” (p. 119). This requires careful use of these narratives in reconstructing past events and in interpreting these events. This prompts the authors to stress the challenges of personal narrative evidence: “It is by nature subjective and highly personal. We have argued that every life story is unique but also that life stories, whatever their form, can only be understood in light of their social, cultural, and historical context. Moreover, although it is invaluable for many analytic purposes, personal narrative evidence is always to some extent incomplete, open-ended, and contingent, which presents a challenge in the face of the expectations of many readers in audiences schooled in the social sciences” (p. 127). Such an assessment also could be made all archival materials in general.

Archivists working in appraising and subsequently describing documents such as diaries, journals, and memoirs will find these volumes useful in understanding how such sources are employed by various kinds of researchers. Archivists might also reflect a bit on how they describe such materials. While archivists are careful to follow descriptive standards and to be sensitive to archival principles such as provenance, they might also consider utilizing various theoretical frameworks in describing the nature and contents of these sources. This might highlight the potential value of such sources better than mere discussion of their content, especially if it could be done online with digitized portions of their texts as examples.