Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton (1989, 2013)

"... the archive is like a forest without clearings, but by inhabiting it for a long time, your eyes become accustomed to the dark, and you can make out the outlines of the trees." (p. 69)

When The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton (originally published in1989, translated in 2013) came into the library where I work, two different co-workers sent me notes telling me I should check it out. As a self-respecting archivist, how could I resist?

Farge is a French historian who studies social history in 18th century France, mainly using police and legal records to uncover the hidden voices of everyday people during and after the French Revolution. In this slim volume, Farge pays homage to the skills and techniques of archival research and, in a series of vignettes, pokes a little insider fun at the ins and outs of the stoic French reading rooms.

As a "lone arranger" archivist in a small collection in Texas, I find that my reading room procedures don't really match up with the old school antics of the French National Archives. Still, while some of Farge's affectionate jabs at obscure procedures and dictatorial research archivists sting, there are some kernels of truth there and reading this book will definitely bring the non-historian archivist a different perspective on our work.

Beyond the look at the procedural aspects of archival research, Farge shines in her alternately poetic and philosophical look at the practice of historiography. Her descriptions of teasing out meaning and context from incomplete documentary evidence, the need to see what is there and what isn't there, and her ability to bring life to the voices that exist between the official lines of history are a joy to read, and make this archivist feel pretty proud to do the work I do. I can't say I agreed with every word of this book, but I definitely enjoyed reading them.

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