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.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Finding My Way Back

As those who read this blog know, I have been involved in a battle about the soul of the archival community with the Society of American Archivists, where one would not necessarily expect to be fighting such a battle. I will write more about that latter, about my discouragement with SAA’s lack of will to lead the profession in holding the National Archives accountable or endorsing any concept of ethical practice as a key component of archival work other than presenting some vague platitudes that the association will not defend less it might be sued. I fear for our professional future.

I do not fear for our professional mission. Reading English professor Eric Jager’s essay, “Lost in the Archives,” published in the Chronicle Review, March 6, 2009, encourages me why the preservation of archival sources will somehow survive in our society as a public good, despite the best efforts of some of us to tarnish it. Jager, describing his research at the French national archives, provides at first a fairly conventional review of archival research: “time-consuming, eye-straining detective work, punctuated by the occasional thrill of an unanticipated revelation.” Then he recounts his efforts to examine documentation about a 1386 trial by combat, discovering records not seen by others: “In all the published literature on the 1386 affair, I had never seen any discussion of this record, and as I opened the volume, I had the delicious sense that I was lifting the lid of a box of secrets that had been hidden for many centuries.”

Jager affirms for us, even now immersed in the digital era, why travel to and laborious efforts in archives are important: “Nearly every day I found something new in the archives, whether a detail about the families or finances of the principal characters, a twist in the legal case, or another piece of information that shed a little more light on the controversial affair. Each discovery was a reminder of how much is hidden in the vast yet incomplete archive of the human past — how much has been lost for good and how much, even in the digital age, still depends on the paper, parchment, or papyrus record.” Over the past two years I have been making regular journeys to read, slowly and carefully, the diaries of a pioneering modern archivist, documentary editor, and scholarly publisher – and I feel much the way Jager does.

Despite my struggles with what some think ought to be condoned as acceptable behavior, building only a shell of a profession and weakening the societal mission, Jager reminds us of the power and value of old documents. This refreshes my hope for society’s regard for archives and archivists, even if we sometimes disrespect it ourselves.

You can read his entire article at