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.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Looking at Archives From the Other Side

Archivists have tended to examine the use of their materials from their own vantage point, but now there are many researchers from many different disciplinary perspectives writing about the use of these documentary materials. Gesa E. Kirsch and Liz Rohan, eds., Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) brings together a group of accounts about experiences in using archival sources. The editors contend that these various essays reflect the “change from reading an archive not just as a source but also as a subject” (p. vii). These essays also demonstrate the “ways in which cultural theorists extend the definition of archive beyond print records or ephemera” (p. ix). We see something of the serendipitous nature of research in archives, no matter what research method is being used. Each of the essays is a brief recollection about the experiences of doing research on a range of topics, from women writers to family archives, with each author emphasizing their personal experiences in the research.

These essays place traditional archives into a larger universe of other sources, as well as provide a sense of the emotional aspects of archival research. In W. Ralph Eubanks essay about the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, we learn that there were many other sources needed to tell the complete story. Eubanks writes, “In the course of three years, the archives served as only one component of my journey to find out how my parents ended up in the Sovereignty Commission files. But had it not been for the archives, I would not have been drawn back into the very soul of Mississippi: its people and places. It was through rediscovering the people and places I knew and loved as a boy that my research and writing began to come together” (p. 113). Another essayist, Malea Powell, reflects on what the physical structures of archives suggest about archives: “Though the Newberry and other buildings like it are textual spaces designed to intimidate. I believe they do so as a way to negate their own temporality and impermanence. . . . [T]hese large Gilded Age buildings like the Newberry manage the physical place upon which the imperial society they represent has engaged in empire into a space of argument for the value of Western culture” (p. 120). These essays turn the archival world inside out, and they provide a different way of seeing what archivists do and what archives represent.