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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Curiosity and Correspondence in Early America

Susan Scott Parrish, in her American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American and Culture by University of North Carolina Press, 2006)”argues that, because America was a great material curiosity for the Old World and its immigrants to the New, America’s unique matrix of contested knowledge making – its polycentric curiosity – was crucially formative of modern European ways of knowing” (p. 7). Parrish depicts the gathering of natural history specimens and the exchange of information about natural history, primarily through the creation of an elaborate correspondence network (the reason why this book ought to be of interest to archivists; in addition to letters, travel narratives, publications, reports, and other documents are circulated in this network). “Colonial subjects in America were not mere collectors for the knowledge makers of the metropole. European correspondents depended upon locals for their kinds of expertise: identifying a novel specimen, understanding its properties or behavior, reporting on or depicting the specimen in its live and natural context, or seeing the interdependence of plants and animals” (p. 8). Parrish provides descriptions of the nature and content of letters: “These were likely to be one-to-three page hodgepodge descriptions of whatever the American correspondent had observed since his or her last letter. They often accompanied or gave notice of shipped specimens. The metropolitan correspondents wrote back with the latest scientific news, with effusive thanks for the specimen gift, with more requests, and often sent back English flora or exotic flora recently arrive in London” (p. 18), And so forth.

The use of correspondence as a main pillar of the natural history network is another reminder about how earlier information societies functioned long before the advent of the computer and what we now consider to be THE information society. While Parrish’s book is not just a study of the correspondence, read by archivists it can provide another means that they understand something more about why and how such correspondence was created and often maintained (and in some instances even published in scientific and other journals). It is a book similar to others by scholars such as David Cressy and Robert Darnton demonstrating how information and communication networks were created and sustained, leaving behind heaps of archival documentation. As time wore on, the use of correspondence became more sophisticated. As Parrish examines the development of transatlantic friendships, often between people who never met face-to-face, she observes, “Letters possessed not only evidentiary but also diagnostic force. They would not only reflect but reveal what otherwise remained hidden. Letters were to be the proper modern instrument for probing human nature” (p. 137).