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, February 01, 2009

Historians, the Past, and Evidence

Once upon a time, archivists read regularly, if not faithfully, new books on historical method and historiography. Some still do, and you can count me as part of this group. Peter Charles Hoffer, The Historian’s Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time (New York: New York University Press, 2008) is an interesting place to get back into this habit. Hoffer sets out the parameters of a relevant philosophy of history, stating that it “must accommodate the imagination of ordinary people, while not abandoning the just requirements of analytical penetration and narrative depth. It must incorporate a due sense of humility, recognizing the legitimate place of paradox, irony, and uncertainty, and have a place for faith (though not necessarily in organized religion)” (p. 4). Hoffer, who confesses to writing this book at the end of his teaching career, is obviously trying to weave in and around all the battles and conflicts that have occurred in the past few decades concerning the use and abuse of historical evidence, facts and truth, audience and purpose (no surprise, since he is the author of one of the best books about fraud in historical research, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud in American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis and Goodman). He is trying to shift through the complicated challenge of knowing that we can never be completely certain about the past, but that we need to make the effort in order to learn about our society and ourselves.

Hoffer, using logic as his framework, steadily works through his philosophy, and he offers a number of comments that should give pause to archivists and those who use archival sources. He considers the veracity of sources and the reliability of historical constructions: “historians know that words in statements they make, just like those in the statements made by people in the past, depend not on the logic of the statement itself for their meaning but in meanings that real people in real time ascribe to the words” (p. 12). This historian also suggests the issue of who creates the archives, reflecting on ideas from Derrida and other deconstructionists/postmodernists: “most deconstructionists were highly suspicious of government. The power of the state expressed in its archives, or its armies, extended to the power to fabricate history” (p. 150). Whatever one might think of this argument, such assertions have sensitized many archivists and users of archives to the issue of power expressed in even the most benign of records.

Most importantly, Hoffer provides a sense of what, why, and how archives represent the past, driving this point home in the end of the book. He suggests how little documentation most of us leave behind: “We are the product of history and we make history. Though most of us occupy only a small place in it, leaving behind us the scant documentary record of our aspirations and achievements (and our failures too), we are the stuff of history. It is that single, necessary fact that enables us to know about the past and demands that we seek out its truths” (p. 182). After a generation or so of historians and other scholars arguing about the flaws and bias in archival records, Hoffer suggests that it is safe now to go back to these sources: “What is the philosophy of history for our time? It is that it is safe to go back into the archives, safe to return to the classroom and the lecture hall, safe to sit at the word processor or to lift the pen over the yellow pad, safe to go to the library and take out a history book or buy one on It is safe to teach and write and read and listen to history. Something happened out there, long ago, and we have the ability, if we have the faith, to learn what that something is” (p. 181). As archivists, we certainly must possess this kind of faith.