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, January 24, 2009

Ways of Writing

David D. Hall, Ways of Writing: The Practice and Politics of Text-Making in Seventeenth-Century New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

This is a study about how manuscript and print existed side-by-side, both providing venues for publication. Through this study we learn about how the Colonists wrote in legal cases, religious practices, economic activities, and government. While Hall’s focus is on publication, archivists will learn something of the forms of manuscript creation in the seventeenth-century, which are not just the work of printers and booksellers but also that of copyists. There are descriptions of the blank pages in printed books being used for handwritten notes and almanacs printed with blank pages to allow individuals to record their own observations. There are also commentaries about writing suggesting needs for additional research falling right in line with what we would expect archivists to be able to contribute to; for example, Hall writes, “clerks and secretaries labored on behalf of colony and county governments preparing copies of statute laws, legal forms, proclamations, and the like, but we know next to nothing of how these men were trained or their work practices” (p. 34). Occasionally, we gain a glimpse of real archives, such as when Hall considers the work of William Bradford, noting that his famous “Of Plimmouth Plantation,” an account circulating in manuscript long before it was printed, “was part of an archive that also included a letter-book and originals or copies of letters he or other officials of the colony had received or sent during his many years of service in the colony government, most of the time as governor. Some of these letters were preserved in ‘Of Plimmouth Plantation,’ which had chapters that approximated a compilation of documents” (p. 74). Hall also examines the growing use of petitions to the colonial governments to settle disputes and air grievances, considering how the governments determined to accept what petitions, and noting how reluctant the governments were in these early years to create records of debate and dissent (although such a culture developed, buttressed by the printing and scribal production of other documents from sermons to literary expressions). Although Hall is a scholar of printing history, and his focus here is to examine the balance between different modes of textual dissemination, there is enough of a view into the archival impulse to warrant a reading by those interested in the history of archives and other forms of recordkeeping.