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, February 07, 2009

Along the Archival Grain

Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Stoler gets right to the point in her book with these first three sentences: “This book is about the force of writing and the feel of documents, about lettered governance and written traces [of?] colonial lives. It is about commitments to paper, and the political and personal work that such inscriptions perform. No least, it is about colonial archives as sites of the expectant and conjured – about dreams of comforting futures and forebodings of future failures” (p. 1). Using the 19th century Netherlands Indies and its extensive archives, Stoler provides the anthropologist’s view of colonial archives, through the sometimes-heavy jargon of that discipline, which gives a variety of insights into the nature of archives in general. Stoler’s book represents something of what I anticipate as a great flood of books about archives from other disciplines that not only examine in detail the records themselves but also even consider what archivists have had to say about the topic. Although Stoler’s commentary drawn from the work of archivists is meager (and hardly worth more mention than this), Along the Archival Grain is a book working archivists, archival educators and scholars, and archival students need to read.

As one expects from this discipline’s vantage, it is difficult to summarize all the aspects of Stoler’s complex descriptions of records and recordkeeping. Suffice it to say, that a reading of her book provides a rich and complicated assessment of what archival sources represent. While many archivists acquire, describe, and provide access to their documents without much reflection about what the evidence and information in these sources promise, Stoler’s study reminds us that an archival document brings into play many issues of power, control, memory, forgery and fabrication, and other such aspects. Records are not just neutral testaments of evidence waiting to be mined by a researcher, but they fiction and fact, story and testimony, all rolled up into bureaucratic and societal conventions of recording and remembering. Stoler sees these that these “archives are not simply accounts of actions or records of what people thought happened. They are records of uncertainty and doubt in how people imagined they could and might make the rubrics of rule correspond to a changing imperial world” (p. 4). The records “register confused assessments, parenthetic doubts about what might count as evidence, the records of eyewitnesses with dubious credentials, dismissed rumors laced with pertinent truths, contradictory testimonies called upon and quickly discarded” (p. 23). In these records we find contests over power, efforts to find belonging and community, sentiment, explorations into faith, visions of the future, revisions of the past, and rumors shaped into facts. Stoler helps us see that an archival record is not just a flat piece of evidence waiting its rediscovery, but that it is a document full of nuance, depth, and breadth waiting its interpreter. She tries to persuade us to read against the grain of what the creators of these archives intended these records to serve, seeking to provide archivists and users of archives more insights into the nature and value of the evidence they give us. Her examination of colonial archives enables us to explore into a particularly valuable territory about the meaning of archives as documents, institutions, and memory repositories.

We also can read something of the present archival enterprise into how this older colonial archives functions (in effect, either there is much in common in all archival creation and work or, maybe even more telling, all archival effort is in a sense colonial in nature). As Stoler writes, “Kilometers of administrative archives called up massive buildings to house them. Government offices, filled with directors, assistant directors, scribes, and clerks, were made necessary by the proliferation of documents that passed, step by meticulous step, through the official ranks. Accumulations of paper and edifices of stone were both monuments to the asserted know-how of rule, artifacts of bureaucratic labor duly performed, artifices of a colonial state declared to be in efficient operation” (p. 2). This is an assessment of a 19th century colonial archives operation, but it may suggest something as well of what 21st century archivists do. It makes me wonder when the anthropologists will arrive at our doors to study our present activities. It calls up discussions and arguments with some students who are more focused on processes, credentials, practices, and artifacts than in mission and knowledge. It makes me wonder if I bring my own artifacts and artifices to the classroom and contribute to fairly mundane ways of understanding and managing archival evidence.

Scholarship such as Stoler’s pushes us to re-examine our conceptions about the purpose and nature of archival work. My own work of recent years, for example, stresses both evidence and accountability and the more complex elements of the cultural role of archives for memory and identity. How can I focus on the role of records for accountability if we understand the vagaries of records in terms of truth, power, and other purposes? It may be that the process of capturing records, rather than necessarily the veracity of the sources themselves, may be the more important role for achieving accountability. After all, how many times do we slip to the archives in order to hold someone or some organization accountable? However, the possibility of doing this may be more important than the actual need to do so. It is easier to understand, of course, how the layering of record after record achieves the means for personal identity and group memory.

This is an important book for anyone’s personal library on archives.