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.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reading, Writing, and Archiving

A fruitful area of scholarship for archivists to explore as a means of understanding how and why documents are created is that of historical literacy studies. Recently, as I wandered around in one of my favorite book haunts, I discovered two older such studies I had somehow missed.

E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press in association with the American Antiquarian Society, 2005) provides a richly detailed analysis of reading and writing, seeking to provide more evidence of how people become literate (rather then, as she argues, just determining rates of literacy in this period). Individuals interested in the formation of documents will welcome her description of penmanship instruction, diary writing, copybook production, various uses of writing skills, and the implications of the improvements in writing materials and implements. Monaghan, a reading and education specialist as well as a historian, sifts through an immense amount of primary and secondary material to build her case about how reading and writing instruction matured by the late 18th century to serve a much larger array of social and economic functions.

Hilary E. Wyss, Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000) examines the nature of Native American literacy by considering five cases from the late 17th to early 19th centuries. The purpose of her book is to demonstrate that there were Native Americans who left behind written accounts of their experiences, if we know where to look and how to interpret the evidence. Wyss also makes a number of observations about the creation of documents, such as the use of Bibles as “records of events” (p. 2) by scrawling comments in the margins and using every open space.

Such works on historical literacy reflect scholarship that archivists and others interested in archives can mine for references to the generation of texts that ultimately end up in archival repositories. Careful reading of such work will help archivists to interpret more effectively the sources they are managing, and, perhaps, will assist them in preparing more richly detailed representations of these sources.