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, December 16, 2007

Finding Iris Chang

Iris Change, the internationally known author of The Rape of Nanking who committed suicide in 2004 at 36 years of age, has been brought back to life by her long-time friend Paula Kamen in Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007). A substantial part of Kamen’s book is her investigation into Chang’s depression and mental illness. However, the book also is a window into the use of archival material, both by Kamen and by Chang.

Kamen can analyze Chang to the extent she does because Chang left behind a huge quantity of archival material. Kamen notes she was “guided throughout my quest for answers by circuitous trails of clues that Iris herself seemed to leave me – buried within her writing, correspondence, and hundreds of boxes of personal and professional papers that she had left to three major university archives” (p. xvi). As Kamen delves into Chang’s personal papers, she finds that these archives revealed Chang “putting her affairs in order in the few weeks before she died” (p. 72). Kamen also reveals that in her own personal papers she has many letters and other documents concerning Chang, and she draws on these to re-evaluate what they reveal about Chang.

Finding Iris Chang also concerns Chang’s love of research in archives, best represented in her book about Nanking but also encountered in every aspect of her life. Chang was a lover of archives, an accomplished researcher, and archives provided her life with adventure and the thrill of discovery. Chang’s archival impulses prove to be infectious. Kamen notes at the end of the book, “In investigating her influence, I’ve also become more aware of the significance of historical documents in general to transcend speculation and rumor – and shed light on even the most convoluted and misunderstood events of the past” (p. 263).

Archivists will want to read this book with its descriptions of historical documents and references to real-life archivists, including the “low-key” Bill Maher (p. 69) and Gregory Bradsher, “wearing torn canvas students” and looking “like a college student” (p. 251). This is a book about the power of archival documents.