Bill Tozier recently wrote about archives and historians, about the difference between researchers who are alive doing scholarly work in simultaneous relation to other researchers who are alive, on topics that are being produced as knowledge in the here and now and historians who read documents by dead people, about dead people, struggling to figure out what those documents meant.
Every time I spend time in an archive, which I love to do, I think about these issues. The thing that you don’t fully appreciate when you begin your work as a historian is that the archive is like the fossil record. We have fossils of animals that happened to wash into areas favorable for long-term preservation, from animals that happened to have bodies that preserved fairly well. That might be a lot of the organisms that have existed on Earth or maybe only a small sub-selection of them, depending on your view of the fossil record and evolutionary process.
Documents end up in archives for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes because of extremely rigorous governmental or institutional rules about the preservation and filing of records, but that is often only the most recent era of document creation. Sometimes because records had a direct functionality for some kind of social process where history needed regular remembering: records of land tenure, or parish records of demography. More often the kinds of documents I like end up saved for more idiosyncratic reasons. A family, a person, is a pack rat and keeps everything, donates it at some point to a nearby library or archive or museum.
The thing you realize that you understand less about as time goes on (while knowing more) is the hidden rules and structures that govern different kinds of documents. Historians have a tendency to look past what is typical or average in a document. I read a diary yesterday that was a record of life in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, from 1898-1900 written by a young white woman travelling from Johannesburg to live with her brother. I was reading it rather speculatively before I got into the really juicy espionage reports by the British South Africa Police.
Some of the diary is most interesting for what it doesn’t seem interested in. It records the minutae of everyday life but the author says virtually nothing about Africans, nothing at all. (This is like reading Rhodesian papers in the early years of the 20th Century, in which lawn bowling scores often appear to be more important by far than the lives of Africans.) I think there is one passage where she mentions feeling nervous when left alone on a trip into the countryside with two African drivers.
But it’s not clear what that means, because it’s a very structured genre of document. There’s a great deal else that she doesn’t talk about in her diary. There’s nothing reflective about her life. Once or twice she mentions experiences that she feels are “naughty” which she says she will not record herein, and it’s hard to tell whether that means a vaguely bawdy joke, a political discussion, making fun of the local pastor or making out with a local man. Much of her diary is essentially a record of routinized domestic labor, of household productivity: a goodly portion of her entries go something like “Very busy day: sewed socks, made lunch for guests, took nap, went to bed exhausted”.
You can be mislead by this document in so many ways unless you know something of what it meant for most people of her life circumstances to be keeping a diary at that point in time. It wasn’t a place to confide secret crushes on Reggie or Archie or Jughead and locked away in a cupboard, or a place to meditate on one’s life. But knowing more about the form at that moment in time in that place doesn’t answer the questions about meaning. What can I say about her, about her time and place, about anything at all, even knowing something about the nature of diaries? I still only have the diaries that happened to end up in archives, for whatever reason, which include some like this one and others which are more idiosyncratically personal and reflective. Is it meaningful that Africans weren’t part of the landscape she noticed or observed? Maybe. Does that mean she wasn’t seeing them at all, or that she was seeing them too much, too anxiously? A single document, maybe a whole archive, can’t really answer those questions readily for a historian. Experience with interpretation helps, but so does instinct and empathy.