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.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Clio's Warriors

There has been a lot written about war and memory, and some of these studies even occasionally mention archives and archivists. Tim Cook, in his Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006), does more than mention archives and archivists, he makes them central players in his narrative. Being the son of well-known Canadian archivist, Terry Cook, I doubt anyone is surprised by this (obviously Terry raised his son just right). Tim Cook examines official government historians working with official records, noting that historians and archivists alike “also shaped the war archives of the nation” (p. 6), as they were often in the front lines struggling to make sure that records were created to document the Canadians in the wars.

Cook’s book focuses on the work of various Canadian government agencies documenting and interpreting that nation’s involvement in wars during the twentieth century. He first considers the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO) during the First World War, whose artists, photographers, and cinematographers were led by Sir Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), a wealthy Canadian more interested in the construction of histories for propaganda purposes than for anything else. Clio’s Warriors describes the work of CWRO officers on the front who worked to ensure that regimental war diaries were compiled, the efforts of Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty to manage the war records both in Europe and in Canada, subsequent efforts after the war by the Army Historical Section (AHS) under Arthur F. Duguid to oversee regimental histories (there were 60 published between 1919 and 1939) and an official multivolume history of the First World War that did not begin to appear until 1938, tensions between the government historians and academics, and efforts by the AHS to restrict others from using the war records while it labored on its histories.

Clio’s Warriors examines the compilation of official histories and archival activities in subsequent wars. In discussing the Second World War, Cook considers how academically educated historians were recruited to be official war historians, and the impact this had on them in their subsequent scholarly careers. Whereas before and during the First World War, military history was a neglected topic, the Second World War made a number of PhD-wielding historians aware of war archives and the potential of interesting and useful research about military history. Cook includes an interesting chapter about the efforts to manage, cull, and transport back the records of the Canadian military units in the few years after the war, considering the problems of the loss of experienced military historians and the problems of interpretation, reputations, and analysis of policy issues in the writing of contemporary history.

Cook continues the story of these official historians after 1950, noting that the “responsibility of the official historians was the writing of the service histories,” (p. 162) shifting from their earlier work mainly on acquiring and organizing records. These historians were called on to advise the Public Archives of Canada in appraising and scheduling records, trying to come to terms with an immense amount of records. Cook also considers the status of military history in the period, when critics expressed concerns about its ties to the management of official records or to militarism. Cook also discusses how there were more efforts by the official historians to write histories with broader popular appeal, while also striving to be academically responsible. Cook sees the official histories emerging after the end of the Second World War as “contested sites of memory and interpretation, while still concluding “no historian can even begin to contemplate the war without first confronting what was initially written by Canada’s Second World War official historians.” He concludes that they “must rank with the finest historical work ever produced in this country” (p. 199). Cook brings the story up to the present, considering the various shifting fortunes of historians seeking better access to the archival records, the increasing scholarship on Canada and warfare in the twentieth century, and the interpretation by the public, through film and television, of the Canadian war experience.

In his analysis, Cook makes some interesting comments about the nature and role of archival records. He suggests how they were an “essential component in supporting the publicity function of the CWRO, and later underpinned all subsequent interpretations of the Great War.” In reflecting on this, Cook suggests as well that “archives are not just the bare bones of history for future generations; they are part of the history-making process. Archives are not neutral, nor are their creation impartial” (p. 38). In the post-First World War era, Cook details the issue of the public memory of the war, with assessments like this: “With the antiwar poets and novelists achieving greater influence by the late 1920s, the memory of the war was becoming increasingly contested and fragmented. The regimental histories allowed the soldieries and, specifically, the officers, to present their views on how the social memory of the war could be influence or constructed” (p. 66). Comments such as this about the use of archives in writing the history of various wars can be found throughout Cook’s interesting study. Of all the studies on war, public memory, and the interpretation of the place of war in society, Clio’s Warriors provides the deepest understanding of how archives are constructed, used, and re-used.

The purpose of this book is not to discuss the importance of archives in such scholarship; that is just an added bonus. Cook seeks to help us understand that official war histories are not merely court studies to be casually dismissed by the real historians or to be held in suspicion by the public wanting to know about their nation in war. And, from my vantage, he has succeeded in helping us understand the challenges of writing the history of warfare, especially in a time period shortly after the conflict. And, we also understand why government records and other archival documents are so critical to the effort and need to be opened and accessible as soon as possible.

This is an important book for both historians and archivists to read, even those not from or living in Canada.