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.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Sensing Records

Many archivists try to read current historiography and historical methods texts in order to be prepared for understanding how at least a portion of their researchers may be interacting with them in their reference rooms. Mark M. Smith, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) is certainly a book that can be perused with this purpose in mind. Smith describes the purpose of the book in the following way: “Because this book functions principally as a primer and as an introduction to work on the topic, it is structured around showing how historians have used and understood each sense” (p. 18). Smith positions his extended critical bibliographical essay around the great divide theory, the juxtaposition of orality and literacy in the development of society and culture.

The book is structured just as the title suggests, with introduction and conclusion sandwiching a series of chapters on each of the five senses. In each of these essays, Smith tries to explore how historians and other scholars have sought to ascertain the manner in which these senses are documented or could be recreated. For example, Smith reminds us that early written records often sought to capture the nature and importance of spoken words. Nevertheless, Smith also acknowledges that “precisely because sensory history is so alive and vibrant, we have yet to develop sustained and informed conversation about how best to understand and develop it” (p. 117). Archivists could play a useful role in trying to comprehend what their sources have to tell us about the senses, extending far beyond the usual suspects of audio recordings to examinations of how other paper and digital sources inform us about the importance of the senses in the past. This is especially important, since many advocates of historical research in this area suggest that it needs to occur outside of the archives in museums and living history recreations (Smith counters some of the fallacies of this position). So, I envision a conference on smelling, tasting, and touching archival documents; what fun that could be!