Forgetting the archive

Historians use archives to uncover things that societies have forgotten.[1]

This is why the archive is at the heart of how historians think about writing. To read the monumental work of the early-modern historian Keith Thomas, for instance, can often feel like being confronted by a patchwork of documents, carefully cut and stitched back together.[2]

What would it mean to forget the archive?


 

There are good reasons not to do this.

There are those who will object that too many historians already erase the archive, and archivists, from their writing. Taken as given, the archive is everywhere and nowhere in many histories. Is it not important for historians to explore what it means to make their own experiences in the archive central to how they present their histories? Readers often enjoy the sense of detective work in historical research. Many books have been built around this insight, from Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – a non-fiction tale of a sensational Victorian crime –, to Alison Light’s Common People – her search for her own family history –, or Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded – which begins and ends with 148 diaries in a skip. Archive work, these books show, can be a gripping part of non-fiction stories.


 

There is, on the other hand, only one reason to forget the archive, but it is a powerful one: historians should leave the archive behind if it makes their writing better.

The imagination, creativity, and clarity in great historical writing does not come from the archive, but from the historian. What makes the books by Summerscale, Light, and Masters compelling is not necessarily the drama of the archival stories they have uncovered. In fact, Light and Masters are both drawn to banal stories. Instead, it is their own imagination that holds the reader. It is Summerscale proposing to solve a mysterious crime. It is Light on an impossible quest to know where she is ‘from’. It is Masters wanting to know who the diarist is, but not wanting to know the diarist’s identity.

Anyone who has done historical research will be familiar with the feeling of inspiration that can strike when the tedium of the archive is disrupted by a sudden illumination. The point is that it is a mistake to assume that this illumination comes from the archive. Most often, I suspect, it comes from the historian, and the reason to leave the archive behind is to better develop this aspect of your writing. Seek inspiration elsewhere.

Forget your footnotes, sometimes.

Ultimately, no history can ever forget the archive completely. It would no longer be history. But for the sake of writing, why not try leaving the archive behind?

 


 

Practice:

  1. Feed your brain. Rather than revisiting your research notes, your database, or your sources when you write, try beginning with something else. Go for a walk. Have a bath. Visit an art gallery.
    1. Of course, using your notes and using your imagination do not have to be either/or choices. The question is: what does it feel like to let go of the archive for once?
  2. Freewrite about why you are researching your topic now. Be as open-minded and comprehensive as you can. Do you have personal reasons to be interested in the subject? Are there reasons why it seems particularly important today.
    1. You don’t have to share this thinking with anyone, and you may well decide it is not useful to include it when you are writing. That is not the point.
  3. Try writing about your topic without revisiting your research notes. What are the important things you remember?
    1. You can go back and compare what you have written to your research. Are you surprised at what you got wrong, or what you forgot to include?
  4. Go through a piece you have written about your research and count how many different references there are to your source materials. Which piece of evidence do you consider the least important? Freewrite for 20 minutes about that one piece of evidence.


[1] I mean ‘archive’ in the broad sense. A self-assembled archive of oral history recordings is an ‘archive’ in similar ways to the official archives of the state that so often serve as a normative model for how historians think about archives. The differences are important, but not central to the point I am making here. See Michelle King ‘Working With/In the Archives’, in Simon Faire and Lucy Gunn (eds.), Research Methods for History.

[2] Thomas himself has described his cut-and-paste working methods in an LRB article.

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3 thoughts on “Forgetting the archive

  1. Thoughtful post takes me to Keith Thomas’s wonderful Diary post on method, which, in turn, leads to William Lamont’s delightful anecdotal memory. For which, many, many thanks (going in my methods course). If I save all that would that be a/the archive?

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  2. Freewriting has long been my favorite method to do a brain dump after days out in the field. When you set aside the oral histories recorded, and the notes taken during an interview, it allows you to explore new ideas, questions and ways of presenting your research. My freewriting has led me to create amazing and insightful essays; I’ve never published any, but this is most likely because I’ve chosen the wrong journals. While the reality is that journals want evidence based research with citations to support your theories or findings, freewriting is a way wonderful way to explore your research with a new perspective, unfettered by the archives.

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  3. Very useful subject to think about, and free writing to explore research is a great way to work out ideas. However, to my mind ‘the archive’ as such shouldn’t be left behind so readily. In recent years I’ve been providing copy for a specialist library/collection which is both university and public facing – an open access resource which is at the same time a university facility. The impact agenda in academia generally has meant researchers have been forced to think of how they can weave together a ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ about their work, but I’ve also needed to consider how to make the process of looking for ‘evidence’ and using archives/collections/libraries fascinating and even entertaining for those who might never think such resources were of relevance to them. More broadly, as time goes on, and we begin to hear more and more about ‘fake news’ and ‘fake history’, maybe we who call ourselves ‘historians’ should ponder deeply about the importance of our particular skills and insights, which are at their best rooted in trying to be a conduit between ‘the sources’ and the contemporary audience. Yes, it helps if we are up front about who we are and our particular interests in the subjects. But having done that, trying to reflect the sources as faithfully as possible (however tedious that may sometimes seem) is one of the key contributions we can put before our audiences in these days when ‘fact’ seems to have become a slippery concept. Many people in the past may have scoffed at archives and those who inhabit them. Maybe pretty soon they will scoff no more! The skills of the historian will hopefully come into their own…

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