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.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Understanding Archival Texts

The way in which we look at archival documents has changed, for many scholars, over the past few decades – or so it seems. At some moment, back when I was very young, the assumption in doing any kind of historical research was that you went to the archives, found the evidence, and constructed a narrative. Now we know that the evidence in archival documents is more complex than we thought and that writing a narrative is itself fraught with challenges.

Patricia Galloway’s Practicing Ethnohistory: Mining Archives, Hearing Testimony, Constructing Narrative (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0-8032-7115-9, is an important contribution to assisting us to comprehend the limitations of archival documents and the process of weaving them into a coherent interpretative narrative. This is a book all users and administrators of archives need to read and mull over. What she offers are some useful insights, but some are disturbing; some of what she writes disturbed me, but, then, I like a book that shakes me about a bit. Anything is better than picking up another volume promising to give you the basic steps, reduced to the barest principles, to running successfully an archival program.

In this book, Galloway brings together an interesting array of previously published essays and unpublished conference papers, extending from the early 1980s to near the present, that started with her work in editing the final volumes of the Mississippi Provincial Archives: French Dominion, employing her background in French, comparative literature, and related disciplines, back in the late 1970s. Galloway describes early on in her book as, “In a very substantive sense the essays here, covering some twenty years of my work in ethnohistory, track my intellectual autobiography. . . “ (p. 1). No one, reading the book, will disagree with this assessment.

Her focus is on the Native American population in the southeastern United States, and her purpose is to contribute to ethnohistorical method (and since I am no expert in this discipline I can’t assess how successful she is in this). The purposes of her essays are to describe approaches “that can be used to get closer to at least hearing echoes of Native words and seeing outlines of Native actions in the kinds of European documents that record the specific past I have studied for twenty five years” (pp. 26-27). The resulting book is an interesting tapestry of studies on bias and linguistic problems in European documents describing encounters with indigenous peoples, the incompleteness of Colonial government sources, the limitations of archaeological data when related to other historical sources, efforts to reconstruct population statistics when available sources, the value and interpretation of European recorded place names, the use of old maps in relating their evidence to modern cartographic renderings, negotiations with different groups over the public interpretation in museum exhibitions of the history of Native Americans, and so forth. Nearly all of the essays relate, in one way or another, to Galloway’s observation that “historical sources of any kind cannot be unbiased, must always be partial, and are never representative of perfect recall of the facts,” joining in with a chorus of other scholars who have been arguing this for many decades (p. 25).

There is one aspect of the book, in my opinion, that does not work well. While Galloway throughout provides evidence about how the notion of tribal archives has shifted to the tribal societies exercising control over them, her argument that “Euro-American archival practices are no more universally applicable to all needs than are Euro-American historical practices” (p. 19) really spins nowhere. One can infer from her various essays this point, and I doubt many in our multi-culturally sensitive society would want to argue the point anyway. Galloway goes farther in her introduction. She states that historians and archivists are also challenged by “unavoidable effects of power distorting the preservation of the ‘historical record’” (p. 23), again a point most of us in our reflections on post-modern critiques and more critical analysis of texts would enjoy debating but would generally agree that this is a factor in the shaping of the documentary record (even though most archivists consider themselves among the least powerful professional groups in society).

Galloway takes one more additional step, making a sweeping assessment about how all this relates to modern archival practice. “The reality of the case is that in spite of ethnocentric rationalizations by European and Euro-American archivists,” she muses, “decisions about what to keep and what to let go are nearly always made or influenced by the powerful, even if only by the denial of adequate resources. Nobody, therefore, has a complete record of the past” (p. 25). The problem with this statement is that Galloway never really discussed how her experiences in her important and interesting ethnographic research really relates to the practical contemporary issues in the archival community of today. She never considers the internal debates within the archival community, over matters about, say, appraisal or representation, and never engages with the diverse archival literature, ranging from the practical to the theoretical, that might support or refute such a perspective. There is no focus on the point. Instead, it appears more like an angry aside rather than a thesis; a conclusion where she returned to these kinds of introductory statements and grappled with them from the perspective of modern archivists contending with poor resources, many competing resources, a sometimes bewildering array of laws and security issues, and a diverse and increasing complex documentary technology and then related her insights would have been very interesting (and something I hope she undertakes in the future and publishes in the mainstream professional literature).

As it is, most working archivists will not read this book, and that is their loss, and they will interpret it as something part of their research clientele ought to know more about than they need to in order to run their shops. As I view the essence of archival knowledge being an understanding of what makes a record, how a records system functions, how it changes over time, and the challenges such systems pose to anyone trying to deal with the evidence found in them, Galloway’s book is an intriguing and useful contribution. However, I wonder how many others in the archival community will delve into her book to try to see what she has to offer? I hope many will read it.