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, June 15, 2007

The Witches' Brew

Most archivists are interested in reading how their researchers use evidence in constructing their narratives and interpretations. Richard Godbeer, in his Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), provides a very candid discussion of the use of historical evidence. Godbeer both provides a description of how justices in the late seventeenth century weighed evidence presented about alleged witches and a description of his own, and other historians’, use of evidence in researching the witch trials. Understanding how historians use such evidence can assist archivists anticipate the kinds of questions they may ask in the reference process and in preparing finding aids that truly assist the researchers.

Godbeer indicates that “reconstructing” these trials and what led to them can be very “challenging.” He continues, “In most cases we cannot be sure that we have all the official papers and in some instances only a few depositions or none at all have survived. Even relatively complete court transcripts rarely provide all the information that we would like to have about the context from which an accusation emerged.” Here we see the limitations of records, even government and legal records that in the colonial period tend to be complete and richer in detail than personal papers. Godbeer notes that for “every useful piece of information that historians unearth, there remain many questions that cannot be answered” (p. 130). Such comments suggest to me that when archivists prepare guides to such records that they might comment on the gaps, omissions, and other problems they see with such sources. Sometimes archivists seem intent, in their finding aids, to write promotional pieces in order to attract researchers into their repository. Might this be like the biographer who becomes too enamored with his or her subject, losing a balanced perspective about the individual whose life is being analyzed. However daunting it may be in terms of time and energies expended, archivists when they prepare such finding aids need to be conversant with how researchers have used such records and the insights such uses offer for describing them in more effective ways. This requires that they commit some time to staying current with the scholarly and other literature on the topics represented in their institutional missions and in their holdings. This is not a new idea, but it is one that has not received as much attention as it deserves.

Godbeer is especially adept at producing a straightforward narrative of the events leading to the witch trials that takes into account what people believed about the supernatural and how such belief might affect what they said or accepted as said by others. In fact, his book is a model of historical prose, approachable by both scholar and a public audience. He helps us see that these were not ignorant backward people but that the New Englanders were “clearly committed to a process of empirical verification that we might perhaps characterize as scientific supernaturalism” (p. 142). Godbeer indicates that most historians writing about the infamous witch trials have tried to be objective, but that his “book seeks to recreate the world in which the people of Stamford and Compo [the towns where the events he deals with occur] lived by giving them voice, avoiding the deliberate self-distancing inherent in most scholarly analysis” (p. 143). One wonders if there is something to this approach for archivists to emulate in preparing their finding aids. Godbeer tells a good story, and despite the many stories screaming from the archival records these stories seem often to be muffled by technical descriptions.