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Book Review


Burton, Antoinette, editor. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005). 396 pp., $23.95.

     In her introduction to this collection, Antoinette Burton poses a growing chasm between the expectations of an increasingly positivistic public, with its faith in absolute and verifiable historical truth, and the hopes of many historians, who see in archives instead a 'multiplicity of interpretive possibilities.' (19) Yet she also notes that most of the profession is 'still quite positivist.' (3) Similarly, Ann Curthoys notes in her closing piece that historians, in the context of public debates over national historical claims, have uncomfortably realized that they themselves 'are even more divided than they knew on issues fundamental to their discipline' concerning objectivity and the likelihood that documents speak for themselves. (351)

     This book is therefore aimed simultaneously both at others within the historical profession and at the more general public, in an attempt to address head-on the fetish-like position of archives in the contemporary cultural and historical imagination. Believing that the cultural controversy over the nature of historical truth is of pivotal concern to all, Burton takes aim at scientific history. This volume is an attempt to end the comparative silence of historians about their 'archive stories,' experiences which often reflect in a very concrete way the personal and political pressures that archives exert on possible histories. In other words, Burton wants here to bring to light the idea that historical interpretation emerges not only from what the historian brings intellectually to the archive, but also from the patterns of thought that the archive brings to the historian; the archive itself is cast as an interpreted depiction of reality rather than understood in its usual way as an objective primary source.

     The general diversity of essays included in this volume is one of its strengths, though notably missing are any selections by academics working at universities anywhere outside the Western, English-speaking world. Authors nevertheless discuss their work afield in archives in Asia and Africa as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America. A number of pieces read archives as material objects themselves, analyzing particular archives as historical artifacts, tracing the documents, organization and architecture as products of fashion, politics, race and gender. Others approach archives as a sometimes Kafkaesque experience created by (politicized) personal interactions with guardians who evaluate, approve, disapprove, facilitate and deny access; archivists might proffer aid or allow technically forbidden use to favored researchers or topics, while arbitrarily refusing all access to those who threaten or encroach on protected turf. (One example of this was the hapless Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on the history of the passport who was refused all requests to use the U.S. Passport Office archives by the chief archivist, who had already written what he felt was the definitive history.)

     Others in this collection propose reading archives as potential evidence of what might have been rather than what actually came to pass, highlighting and evaluating the disjuncture between paper and reality. The Foucaultian theme of archives as intellectual organizations of thought, dictating fields of knowledge and pre-creating units of data, is also fittingly represented. And from the sublime to the absurd, yet others worry about archives being evicted and stored on gymnasium floors or even illicitly sold off by desperately impoverished librarians in the post-Soviet world.

     In one of the most simulating articles, Adele Perry thinks about the important role archives have played in the assertion of literacy as a measure of civilization and orality as evidence of primitiveness. As she points out in her piece on a native land rights case in Canada, law courts have enforced the idea that written archival evidence is introducible, while oral archives (even more suspect because stewarded largely by old women) become 'hearsay' and therefore inadmissible. Yet she notes that native peoples have also used the absence of written treaties in archives as a weapon in their case, ironically turning the legal insistence on written evidence to their favor.

     Not only themes but points of view in this collection are also refreshingly diverse, though all are reflective and theoretically sophisticated. Some authors are unabashed in their distinctions between amateur and professional historians, or in their references to incontestable facts, others say that there is no such thing as either misrepresentation or authentic representation, while yet others advocate for political advocacy to varying degrees.

     Taken together, the pieces provoke thought on a wide range of related and fascinating questions. How much do archives shape our understanding of history? What kinds of fruitful counter-uses of archives, to read stories quite different from the intentions of the original producers, can we imagine? What might be the different implications of archives produced for public consumption and those of documents intended for private eyes only? In short, how much are we even aware of the many layers of our seduction by the source in its legitimated form of 'Archive'?

     The range of essays is also a bit of a weakness. Some pieces are interesting discussions of new sources for social historians, or arguments for how a particular vein of history has been dominated by certain institutional versions, but a bit strained in their connection with a discourse on the nature of the archive. Their inclusion seems to actually dilute the power of the overall critique aimed at archives here.

     To my eye, the personal accounts which are quite well-described by the moniker of 'archive stories' are among the most successful, and some of the jargon-heavy other pieces are shown to disadvantage by contrast. The different essays are therefore usable by somewhat different audiences; while some would be appealing and useful to undergraduates, creating some very concrete images of just how these mysterious 'social constructions' and 'patrolled cultural boundaries' actually look and work to shape historians' work, other sections might bring a glaze to the eyes of anyone not entirely initiated into cultural studies. Luckily, there are enough selections (15 in addition to the introduction) that there is something for every level of university course.

     The readership of a book like this will remain confined to academia, however, and that is a shame. The themes meditated on here, and the desire to explicitly connect historical methodology with issues of public importance and debate, deserve not only the serious and well-considered professional discussion they are given in this anthology, but also a wider public airing. That effort will take another book.


Eva-Maria Swidler
Villanova and St. Joseph's Universities


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