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, September 16, 2007

Time and the Record

Most of us are accustomed to creating or receiving documents with clear, specific dates on them. On the rare occasion when we are examining a record without a date, we are often annoyed or, at the least, inconvenienced. Documents play a key role in fixing time, and they also reflect how the notion of time has been transformed over the span of writing. However, this has been a topic not receiving much attention, except in the various internal archival debates about the authenticity and reliability of records. It is a topic deserving more research.

Two new books suggest something of the background shifts in time that may partly affect and reflect the notion of time in recordkeeping. Penelope J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) provides a broad, sweeping analysis of how time has been viewed by various societies, scholars from philosophers to historians, and by the common people and leaders of those people. Corfield’s purpose is to challenge traditional ways in which scholars, especially historians, have traditionally defined periods or eras. Corfield demonstrates how difficult it is to grasp the sense of time for most, except perhaps for the inherent, natural cycles we experience as we live out our existence.

The other new book is Denis Feeney, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Feeney considers ancient Rome’s use of calendars, astronomical charts, anniversaries, and dating of records and monuments. Feeney in his account often comments on how other societies and eras have taken notice of time, such as when he argues that ancient society did not need accurate time measurement: “Before rapid stage coaches and railways there was no need for anything but local time, and it was the squeezing of physical space by the increase of speed in connecting separate places that made the harmonization of time standards necessary, with the eventual apparatus of international time zones” (p. 10).

Time can be a strange and difficult concept to explain or grasp, especially as it is attached in some way to documents. As I read a diary of a half-century ago, describing events, places, and individuals that I am quite familiar with, I can sense a collapse of time between when the diary entries were written and the present, even forgetting that the individual who wrote the diary has been dead for more than a quarter of a century. When I am having one of those early morning restless sessions (partly because my own aging process has whacked out normal sleep cycles) and partly occupy this period by sending emails to students, I can sense the concern students have in receiving email marked at 3:01 AM; the students fear that I never sleep and that I am always watching them (and I don’t let them think otherwise). Clearly, there is a lot more work to be done on time and recordkeeping.