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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Biographer and Archives

Biographers would have a difficult task if they lacked access to the personal papers of their subjects. This is not to say that biographies have not been written without access to such sources, as a history of the genre of non-fiction writing reveals.

Some of the challenges of writing a biography stem from the critical problems anyone faces in examining documentary sources. Consider, for example, if your task was to write a biography of Joan of Arc. Much of what we know about her comes from the transcripts of the trial. However, as Karen Sullivan reminds us in her The Interrogation of Joan of Arc, Medieval Cultures vol. 20 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), these transcripts are not verbatim accounts of the proceedings of the trial but they represent interpretations compiled by the notaries that were present. As Sullivan suggests, “Following the conventions of the genre within which they wrote, the notaries included in their document certain information about each of the sessions, namely, the date, the time, the location, and the names and affiliations of those persons in attendance, and they omitted certain information” (p. xvi). They recorded only what they thought to be truth about Joan and her activities, shaped by the clerics questioning her and seeking to move her to repentance and confession.

We have a better sense of the nature of biography and research in archives in Nigel Hamilton’s Biography: A Brief History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). Hamilton strives to give us a “narrative overview of biography’s modest origins in prehistory and its long development in the West,” especially over the past century (p. 2). Hamilton comments on the issues of decorum and biography in the Victorian era, leading a number of widows and heirs to destroy personal papers rather than risk them falling into the hands of curious, tell-all biographers. He also mentions how such concerns how developed in more recent years as well, made even more difficult by complicated and often confusing issues of intellectual property (played out in high profile cases such as the citation of letters written by J. D. Salinger or the control of the literary estate of James Joyce) that have caused apoplexy to both biographers and their publishers. Archivists have contributed a few essays on the implications of such research, and it is a topic deserving of more attention.