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.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Telling Stories

Archival repositories are full of stories. If you enter an archives, and you are real quiet, you can hear them. Archivists also spin their own stories. In preparing finding aids, working on exhibition labels, mounting Web sites, and writing press releases, archivists tell stories about the importance and potential use of their collections. A few even spin more stories as they write articles for their own professional literature about what they and their institutions do.

As any educator of future archivists tells their students, all archivists write and they write all the time. So, no wonder I was attracted to a book entitled Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University (New York: Plume, 2007) edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (ISBN 978-0-452-28755-6). This is a fine edition to anyone’s bookshelf of writing guides, especially given its very practical orientation, but I also wondered if there would be any discussion of the use of archival records in this volume.

Telling True Stories includes advice on basic research, various disciplinary approaches to writing stories, developing a story’s structure, producing a quality narrative, the ethics of non-fiction reporting and writing, editing, narrative in news stories, and the nature of a writing career. One would expect, therefore to discover comments about the nature and use of sources, and, we do.

Sprinkled throughout the many contributions are suggestions about the importance and relevance of “paper trails,” created by individuals, organizations, and communities. Some of the advice, offered by historians such as Jill Lepore, includes comments one would expect to find in any basic historical methods primer. Lepore notes that one of the challenges to “reporting historical events” is that “you can’t interview your subjects.” She then rattles off the array of standard types of records from personal documents such as letters and diaries to government records such as probate and tax files (p. 87). Other contributors, such as Jay Allison, relate how recording stories for public radio follows a kind of diary form “because it is inherently intimate and confidential” (p. 93).

What makes a volume such as this a bit more useful than the basic research methods reference is that its primary focus is on good and clear writing, an objective all of us, academics and archivists alike, probably need to reflect more upon. As a result, we find some intriguing personal assessments about how some writers seek to recreate in some dramatic fashion a particular historical event. Well-known historian Adam Hochschild describes how in his book, Bury the Chains, he sought to depict a key meeting in 1787 at a Quaker publisher and bookstore in London. Hochschild reflects how the “only surviving direct record of the meeting is a one-page handwritten summary” recording the “date, list of attendees, and resolutions they had unanimously adopted that the slave trade was unjust and should be stopped, that they would open a bank account, and that a certain number of people would constitute a quorum for future meetings” (p. 133). Anyone who has ever been responsible for drafting the minutes of a meeting can immediately comprehend what this brief document looks like and the original purpose it served. Hochschild pondered about how he could bring this “important moment” back to life, and he turned to other documents, including newspapers and memoirs, secondary sources such as biographies, and “personal experience”: “I found extensive biographical information about two of the men who attended the meeting. I can describe what another man looked like from a portrait. I learned that a fourth person in the group, the printer-bookseller, had stopped every morning on his way to work at a coffee shop just around the corner. These little details made a difference” (p. 133). Hochshild draws on newspaper advertisements, his own walking of this section of London, archaeological reports, depictions of similar London bookshops, and an examination of period printing presses. And he also comments on how to write all this up so that “whenever you vividly reconstruct a scene you weren’t present for, you want to be sure that readers know you’re not making anything up” (p. 135).

I hope no one goes running to the bookstore thinking that this volume is a guide to the use of primary and secondary source materials. That is not its purpose. This is a book about the art of writing or presenting a story, but given that all archivists are the custodians of stories as well as storytellers themselves, this is a book worth at least a glance. Besides, sprinkled throughout it, one can find great little pieces of advice. One of my favorites is this statement by Tom Hallman: “I don’t have a master’s degree from Columbia, I never did an internship at the Washington Post, and I was fired from my first job as a copy editor in New York: I’m an extremely average reporter. Extremely average reporters can win Pulitzers if they know how to tell stories” (p. 212). This is certainly one I will use with my own students.