Archive Stories edited by Antoinette Burton
History’s legitimacy and objectivity relies on the use of archives, but these archives often fail to provide the unbiased information historians desire. The collection of essays comprising Archive Stories – Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, (Duke University Press, 2005) effectively challenges the claims of objectivity of archives and argues that historians need to study their archives as well as their own subjects. Archive Stories attempts to delve further into the nature of archives by taking an ethnographic approach towards understanding them. In Antoinette Burton’s introduction to Archive Stories, she states “history is not merely a project of fact retrieval.” Instead, history is created and shaped by the historian’s personal relationships with archives, its curators and the history of those archives. Archive Stories seeks to create “a more accountable basis for the production of knowledge of the past” by transparently examining the archives historians. (p. 20.) While historians understand archive limitations, Archive Stories effectively argues that historians must acknowledge these infirmities.
Archive Stories’ three sections address the following: personal stories from historians about their interactions with archives; the specific genealogies of six archives; and the role archives play in modern political disputes. Each of these sections comment on different problems archives pose to objectively revealing history.
Craig Robertson in “Mechanisms of Exclusion” expresses his frustration when he was denied access, in an ostensibly open society, to the archives containing the historical records discussing the development of the United States passport. Robertson learned that James E. Schwartz, a State Department bureaucrat, believed he had written the definitive history of the passport and determined that it would be simply redundant to allow anyone else to study the passport’s historical documents because its history was self-evident. Robertson communicates his frustration that the bureaucratic policies of archives could be used to exclude study and how that exclusion undermined the archives claim to objectivity.
Durba Ghosh faced a much different problem; she experienced radically different responses from the archivists and librarians at the British and Indian archives to her research. Ghosh’s research topic examined the sexual relationships that developed between British men of the East India Company and Indian women over two hundred years ago. Even though her research examined sexual relationships that were remote in time, her topic remained politically charged. The Indian archivists and librarians were shocked that a nice Indian woman could possibly believe that any Hindu women had ever had sexual relations with British colonizers. While the response from the British archivists was much more positive, she believed that their reactions were also politically charged. Ultimately, the archives from both countries proved problematic as it became clear the archives were cleansed of any references to these affairs. Ultimately, she was forced to study fictional works to better understand these relationships because the archives intentionally excluded the relevant information.
The second section examines the creation of both official government and counter-histories archives. For official government archives, such as the French and German national archives, they were subject to variables of state creation. The national archives of both nations follow the rocky roads of the creation and re-creation of those states, but all of the essays effectively how it is essential for researchers to understand archive genealogy.
While national archives are dependent on state development, family or private archives are often the work of a few dedicated family members. In John Randolph’s essay about the Bakunin family archive, he examines both the impulse to create the archive and its creators. Mikhail Bakunin was a leading intellectual of nineteenth century Russia, but it Natalia Semenovna Bukunina, Mikhail’s sister-in-law, who preserved the Bakunin family archive. During her lifetime, Natalia shaped the Bakunin archive to fit her version of history. In one instance, she even transferred ownership of portion of the archive to the Imperial Archives to correct a competing history with which she disagreed.
Until the Russian revolution, the archive was controlled by the family, but after it, the archive was turned over to a historian, Aleksaandr Kornilov, who used the archive to reconceptualize Russian intellectual history through “the prism of noble family life.” (p. 220.) Upon Kornilov’s death, the archive was turned over to the Pushkin House and the Soviet state. During each of these ownership changes, the Bakunin archive was altered in its physical form and was interpreted differently by its possessors. Now it is being interpreted by a new set of scholars, such Randolph, in the context of the new Russia.
Finally, Archive Stories, in its final three essays, examines how archives play a role in contemporary politics and culture. In “the Colonial Archive on Trial,” Adele Perry examines the role of archives in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia. The plaintiffs in case, the Gitksan and Wet∙suwet∙en peoples, sought recognition for their claims to land in British Columbia. In order to substantiate their claims, they asked the court to reject the Canadian archives and adopt the indigenous system of validating history. Essentially, the Canadian archives were put on trial. While the presiding judge initially allowed oral evidence to be submitted in circumstances where there was no written history; he ultimately decided it was unreliable because it was based on “Indian grandmothers” communicating their peoples stories to their grandchildren. Unless the past was recorded in an archive, the judge argued it was unknowable. He rejected the oral tradition, in favor of written historical tradition. Surprisingly, the presiding judge’s ruling was rejected on appeal, but only after historians realized that their scholarship could be used to undermine native people’s oral tradition in an adversarial setting. The essay illustrates the pitfalls of determining that a historian’s work is somehow credible and objective simply because it is based upon a written archive, while an oral tradition is not.
Archive Stories succeeds in its attempt to caution historians about the objectivity and veracity of archives. Archives should not viewed as reliable just because they are archives. Ultimately, archives are the products of human creation and subject to all of our failings. Therefore, Archive Stories is useful in its assessment that historians need to be more transparent in their scholarship and acknowledge the problems with archives in their scholarly work.