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, August 13, 2007

Historians, Archives, and Richard Hofstadter

Ever since the emergence of professional historians, there has been discussion about how and why these scholars use archival sources; indeed, the historical community may be the most self-reflective about its research craft and methodology (close to, but certainly not surpassed by, the soul-searching by literary scholars). In the heyday of scientific history a century ago, archives were viewed as laboratories for the new “scientific” history. The rise of social, cultural, quantitative (or “cliometrics”) and other new trends in historical inquiry over succeeding decades all brought with them some discussion and debate about the importance of archives. Such debates have also flared up in the ranks of archivists as their own professional development has moved them to more of an independent status rather than as a part of the historical community (although some might debate this assessment of archival independence as well).

One of the assumptions underlying all of this is that it is impossible to engage in historical scholarship without the use of archival sources. Of course, in recent decades we have seen new forms of historical inquiry drawing on materials not found in the typical archives, historical “documents” (and they can be read as documents) such as the built environment and archaeological remains. David S. Brown’s biography of Richard Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, suggests that even in the heyday of historians’ reliance on archival sources there were scholars who researched and interpreted the past mainly outside of the archives.

Brown’s study, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), traces the life and career of the historian famous for his writings on American political history, anti-intellectualism, and education. Brown notes early in the book that Hofstadter did not personally rely on archival materials, except in published form, even while directing the students in his various seminars to use archival documents. Hofstadter, a historian who despite having died in 1970 at the age of 54, is a scholar still read by undergraduate and graduate students because of his imaginative and well-reasoned arguments about the American past and present. Brown, commenting on Hofstadter’s classic The Age of Reform, considers it “at heart, a product of the mind rather than the archives. It is a richly symbolic book, the fruit of its author’s imagination, his selective reading in the social sciences, and his reaction to McCarthyism” (p. 118). Such an assessment contrasts archival research with scholarly creativity, and those of us concerned about the preservation of the documentary heritage might bristle at this a bit. Brown provides, however, a nicely balanced account of when Hofstadter tended to get into trouble because of his stress on writing essays (nearly all of his books are assemblages of his previously published essays) and his marshalling of evidence from other secondary works and selectively published sources.

In considering The Age of Reform, for example, Brown notes, “His mind sparked in a spirit of expansiveness, and while he often overplayed his insights (a creative strategy he openly acknowledged), it would be difficult to overestimate his importance as an intellectual pioneer.” And this is where Hofstadter’s neglect of archival sources enters in: “Leaving others to mine the libraries to verify or shake his more controversial ideas, Hofstadter aroused a certain degree of jealousy among traditionalists or, as he called them, ‘archive rats’” (p. 144). Shunning the primary sources is always a road to trouble, of course, but it is also the case that there are individuals, like Hofstadter, who can provoke new uses of such sources. In fact, according to Brown, Hofstadter worried little about the criticism concerning his slighting archival materials. Hofstadter “understood that deduction, synthesis, and irony too nourished the historical imagination. Good, exciting history, after all, was something more than a dry recitation of names, dates, and facts. He allowed to a colleague, in what stands as a succinct reply to his critics, that the historical profession needed imaginative thinking more than it needed legions of historians stumbling about in distant archives” (p. 144).

Stumbling or not, archivists want to see historians and other scholars in their repositories. However, Brown’s biography is a reminder that archivists also need to pay attention to other scholars who set new research agendas and possibly stimulate new ways of utilizing such materials.