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, April 24, 2009

Words, Texts, Books, Manuscripts

Anthony Grafton, Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

I have always found the writings of Anthony Grafton to be persuasive, provocative, and practical for stimulating my own ideas about history, intellectual history, and the nature of sources used in studying the past. A review of Grafton’s recent book by G.W. Bowersock in the May 14, 2009 number of New York Review of Books is entitled “The Scholar of Scholars” and aptly features a photograph of Grafton walking down the street at Princeton intently reading a book as he goes. Those having any interest in texts and documents, certainly including archivists, will want to read Grafton’s assemblage of previously published essays.

Early on in his new introduction to these essays, Grafton indicates that a recurring theme is professional and scholarly identity. Humanists “rarely create themselves,” Grafton writes. “We learn first as students and then as practitioners of disciplines, members of communities, users of libraries, habitués of archives, apprentices, and friends – as lurkers in particular intellectual, social, and institutional corners from which we look at the wide world” (p. 7). This is a classic assessment of how scholarly and professional communities establish themselves and evolve, and anyone who has pondered contemporary debates, discussions, and disorder in their own field will enjoy reading about similar spirited dialogues from the Renaissance onward.

Grafton, in bringing together these previously published essays, likens this book (at least the first nine essays, as a “historical traveler’s reports on a strange, imaginary land that had few of the distinctive marks by which we usually identify a state” (p. 9). The Republic of Letters, when Europeans could still seek to master their “entire civilization” before they splintered into the many specialties we know today, emerges, from different angles, over and over again in his essays. Grafton reflects on these modern disciplines and professions with their focus on a “particular function” and their acquisition of a “formal license” to practice (p. 11), and one grasps how much distance has opened between the world of Paris or London several hundred years ago and what transpires in the typical conference of scholars, academics, and working practitioners supporting such tribes. Grafton makes some interesting comparisons between how members of the older Republic viewed themselves, and how today’s heirs often direct their attention to credentials: “Citizens of the Republic carried no passports, but they could recognize one another by certain marks . . . . They looked for learning, for humanity, and for generosity, and they rewarded those who possessed these qualities” (p. 20). These marks are sometimes nowhere to be found in the journals and conference sessions of today’s heavily specialized disciplines zealously guarding their barricades.

Archivists, and others interested in the discernible features of our modern information era, will also find interesting Grafton’s far-reaching discussion about information and its use. Grafton asserts that we study and reconstruct this older Republic in the “thousands of surviving letters” generated by the scholars (p. 21). “The constant writing and sending of letters was more than a system for collecting and exchanging information, “ he states. “Many citizens of the Republic saw it as a moral duty: at once the only way to show their sympathy and affection for those from whom they were separated by political and religious borders and the only way to enter into a regular relationship with the greats who glittered far away” (p. 22).

The first nine essays in this book focus on a variety of topics related to the Renaissance and the creation of the Republic of Letters: Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century scholar; Johannes Trithemius, another Renaissance scholar and his transition from manuscript to print, and the need to catalog and organize the proliferation of print; other Renaissance historians of art and nature; Francis Bacon, the 17th century scholar reflecting on intellectual life; Johannes Kepler and the discipline of chronology (reconstructing calendars and setting historical dates); the fate of Latin as a language of scholarship; the Jesuits and scholarship; and the Jews and their early roles in European scholarship.

The remaining chapters shift to an array of more recent issues related to the fortunes of intellectual history, the role of the so-called public intellectual (one of the essays on this topic utilizes the papers of Grafton’s journalist father concerning an unpublished essay on Hannah Arendt), and the fate of print in the digital era. Some of these essays remind us how well scholars could network before the Internet. Referring to the early years of intellectual history, Grafton notes, “In the age of the Web site and the blog, it is salutary to be reminded that the U.S. mail and the mimeograph machine could sustain a national, interdisciplinary network. . . “ (p. 195).

Grafton’s essay about the future of print, one of the most balanced accounts about this transition, placed in its long-term historical context, is worth the cost of the book. Grafton indicates that the promise of a universal library or archives will not be easily achieved, a “patchwork of different interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those who lack access or money” (p. 309). Ultimately, Grafton believes that the various problems and challenges will be worked out, but in the meantime, with the vast variety of print and digital venues, he believes that traditional libraries and archives will continue to play an important role: “For now, and for the foreseeable future, if you want to piece together the richest possible mosaic of documents and texts and images, you will have to do it in those crowded public rooms where sunlight gleams on varnished tables, as it has for more than a century, and knowledge is still embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable manuscripts and books” (p. 324).

While one might snicker at the sentimentality of the images or sneer at the stereotypes that many scholars resort to when they describe libraries or archives (why are archives always dusty?), this is a book worth reading because it pulls us back to many basics and tests many assumptions we hold about the future of the use of sources by pointing us to look backwards.