The Allure of the Archives

9780300176735Brenda Wineapple at Threepenny Review:

The kick of research—not self-evident, by any means—is the subject of Farge’s marvelous book. Behind it lies the goal of history, which is “the understanding of a time and a world.” And what better way to open a dialogue between present and past than to find the past bundled together in a packet of old papers? Director of Research in Modern History at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and the author of numerous books on eighteenth-century France, Farge explains how and why the historian is tempted to touch—and listen to—those “rags of realities” frequently stored in the repositories we know as archives: a library, a research facility, a local historical society, a hospital, a convent, a church, even a crematorium. (I spent one particularly productive afternoon, years ago, in an office at the Flanner and Buchanan Crematoria in Indianapolis, where I copied out old family recipes for apple crisp.) The archives may contain letters, transcripts, oral histories, photos, passports, paintings, and journals, along with what Farge calls “captured speech,” which, in snatches, allows us to hear what was going on beneath or beyond the official account of an era.

“The judicial archives, in a sense, catch the city red-handed,” she says. “When reading the police records, you can see to what extent resistance, defiance, and even open revolt are social facts.” People have to explain themselves in court. They lie, they plead, they confess, and they stonewall.

more here.