Dusting off the archives

Robert Aldrich, The University of Sydney

Arlette Farge The Allure of the Archives, trans. by Thomas Scott-Railton, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2013 (152 pp). ISBN 978-0-300-19893-5 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Last month—before parts from what seem to be the mysteriously and tragically disappeared Malaysian airliner washed up there—I found myself sitting in the regional archives of the French island of La Réunion, looking at another sort of flotsam. In this case, the flotsam was composed of historical documents, the sort of papers that survive time, natural conditions and intentional destruction to provide us with pieces of the past. My interest was in the manuscript and typed pages in a heavy box of documents from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They related to indigenous rulers exiled by colonial authorities—from lands as disparate as Madagascar, Morocco and Vietnam—whom fate and government decision unexpectedly brought to this island in the Indian Ocean. From La Réunion, I continued on to the Seychelles to look at more archives, though it turned out that the materials I wanted to see there had been shipped away to be treated for a fungus infection. Such a circumstance can happen to a researcher, and the situation forced me to spend much of my time in the Seychelles at the not very difficult work of being a tourist.

I read this translation of Arlette Farge’s book just after I returned from my research trip to the Indian Ocean. The Allure of the Archives is a new issue of a work originally published in 1989 by Arlette Farge, one of France’s most distinguished historians. Many of the things Farge evoked were immediately familiar to me: the texture of old paper, the difficulty of deciphering fading handwriting, the pleasure of finding precious documents or the disappointment that some file folders were nearly empty, the questions about how to use the material that I found, the duty of weaving individual histories recorded in these pages into a tapestry where narrative and analysis form warp and weft.

Farge’s work should be mandatory reading for anyone undertaking not only archival work, but any historical study, and indeed it is a splendid companion for all who are engaged in intellectual endeavor, or who wish to understand the craft of the intellectual. With gentle humour, Farge evokes the day-to-day demands of working in an archive or library: getting a reader’s card, locating sources, taming sometimes officious personnel, ignoring the sighs and coughs and other disruptive tics of fellow users. She cautions researchers about the pitfalls of archival research, and warns of the hazards buried in those dusty cartons and what they reveal. The researcher must read documents attentively, evaluate them questioningly and critically, and then search beyond the words and papers for other versions and perspectives on the episodes recorded. Farge also shows the immeasurable benefits, however, of the encounter between the researcher and these primary documents, the scraps of information that can be pieced together into a satisfying patchwork, the sense of literally reaching out to another time and place, and to the people who lived there.

Farge evokes the day-to-day demands of working in an archive or library.

Farge wrote her volume in the 1980s when the ‘new social history’ pioneered in the 1930s and inspired by such historians of several generations as Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie had achieved near orthodoxy in the academy. Such a method privileged ‘history from the bottom up’, the lived experiences of ordinary men and women—‘the rough traces of lives that never asked to be told in the way they were’ (p. 6), as Farge puts it à propos of those who appear in police records. It aimed at histoire totale, the investigation of such topics as birth and death, and everything in daily life that lay in between. There was much sifting through such documents as judicial records (Farge’s speciality), land titles, parish registers and those other places where the comings and goings of common people were recorded. There was also emphasis on mentalités (a word often associated with Le Roy Ladurie), the study of the collective and underlying attitudes of groups in society. At this time, however, the ideas of Michel Foucault—quoted several times by Farge—were circulating more widely, becoming the currency for new directions of research into discourse and representations, an approach that created a new sort of academic orthodoxy by the 1990s. Since that time, still newer themes have appeared: areas such as the history of the environment, history of the emotions, transnational history, the ‘new colonial history’, a broadened history of science and medicine, and revivified international history. Such change in the discipline is normal, and the kind of history that Farge herself was writing—her studies of crime in eighteenth-century Paris—would have seemed curious to nineteenth-century historians for whom politics, great men, the idea of the nation and the workings of the state stood as cornerstones of their profession.

Farge makes various references to ‘women’s history’, and she is clearly very attentive to the place and activities of women in pre-revolutionary France. In the 1980s—France was rather tardy in this area—women’s history was a maturing field, though nowadays, the phrase is almost never heard. Gender history is the usual nomenclature for us, and extends to the history of sex and sexuality, and gay and lesbian history, as well as the history of men and women, masculinity and femininity, and the relations between them. Any historian who does not take some account of gender in a contemporary work of history is rightly considered remiss, but only thirty years ago, someone focusing on that area would have positioned herself or himself in the forefront of historical study.

The theories of postmodernism current in the 1990s and early years of this century told readers to ‘interrogate’ the archives and to read ‘against the grain’, but Farge, in different language, was already astutely telling historians that this was part of their duty. (And she did so in crystal-clear prose that contrasts markedly with the clotted jargon often favoured by some postmodernist writers.) She tells researchers not to believe everything they see written, to situate documents in context, to question power and the exercise of power that extends to the very accumulation, conservation and classification of archival documents. She listens carefully to the language, the very words, of those who were writing, in one fascinating section recounting how she came to understand the scribbles of a man charged with a crime who could only write phonetically, though he did so lengthily, and in another case, telling of the witty correspondence between two policemen.

Both the opportunities and challenges of the ‘information age’ are great.

Not only do the ways historians approach the past change, but so too do the archives they work in. Many archival sources are wilfully or accidentally destroyed, as papers deteriorate with age, humidity, improper storage or use. What remains is serendipitous. Some archival materials, particularly those of the recent past or considered too sensitive by government authorities, are inaccessible, and access to private collections depends on the goodwill of their owners. Over time, new sources are opened, new collections acquired, and previously closed files are allowed to be opened, changing our store of knowledge. Archives, like the history that they incorporate, are organic, evolving and always subject to the whims of nature and the authorities who provide curatorship, funds and buildings for them.

We in Australia and other developed countries are well served in our archives, but the story is not the same elsewhere. A former colleague who worked in Sierra Leone, Emma Christopher, told me about the lamentable condition of archives there—no climate control, no acid-free boxes, no funds to catalogue the materials that have escaped dictators, rats and insects, no on-line systems to digitise documents, indeed no computers and only infrequent and unreliable electricity (Christopher 2011). She and others have been trying to come to the aid of such archives. Another colleague, Sheila Fitzpatrick, has written fascinatingly about the perils of working in Soviet archives, where the usual challenges of research were compounded by the paranoid politics of the Communist regime (Fitzpatrick 2013). More recently, I heard of a foreign doctoral student in Russia who was literally ejected by policemen from the archives—and then deported and forbidden to return for five years—because he had only entered the country on a tourist visa not a ‘scientific’ one. Other archives are friendlier, with extraordinary staff, well-trained and amiable, helping researchers through the labyrinths of accessing their materials. And let us pay tribute to such professionals. Among them are the staff in the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence where I have often worked; the collections are multiple, one must consult various concordances of old and new shelf-marks, and the computer ordering system is a code of dashes and slashes and other symbols so complex that it baffles the archivists themselves. Every published article or book, every lecture or conference presentation, has a backstory of how it was researched and written, and in most of them, archives play a key role.

Dramatic transformations have occurred in archives and in the way historians and other researchers use them. Anyone who worked in the grand old Bibliothèque Nationale or Archives Nationales in Paris cannot help feel a bit of nostalgia while trudging out to the new suburban archives building or the unwelcoming trophy building of the new national library. Farge talks about microforms of original documents, and the photocopies that reproduce them, and both are still familiar in archives. The electronic age has brought changes unimaginable even at the time that she was writing three decades ago. Historians now consult catalogues from far away and long before they arrive in the reading rooms, relying less (if at all) on the hefty printed registers and the cumbersome drawers of file cards that were once so much a part of research. Digitisation has made available to researchers an extraordinary mass of material—and potentially an infinity of resources—on their laptops. Digital cameras, and the willingness of many institutions to allow readers to use them, make it possible for a researcher to copy in only one hour the documents that he or she would previously have spent days if not weeks transcribing or turning into handwritten notes. Computers allow one to search notes and images, cut and paste information, write and rewrite drafts with a dexterity that was once unimaginable.

We in Australia and other developed countries are well served in our archives.

Technology is also changing the materials that are, or will be, in archives, and no doubt many archivists and librarians spend much of their energy and funding working out how to preserve, classify and make available the overwhelming amount of material from emails, Internet sites and databases that never becomes the paper traditionally stored in those heavy cartons neatly aligned on shelves. While historians of the distant past have always had to work with a scarcity of materials, those of the future will have a surfeit. Yet how will all those ephemeral screens of information be saved, made accessible and used? I began my teaching career just a few years before Farge wrote the original French version of her book, and I now find it an immense benefit, but also a formidable challenge, to manipulate the technology that makes so many sources available to fellow academics, students and myself. For all of us, the keepers of archives and the users of them, both the opportunities and challenges of the ‘information age’ are great.

Nevertheless, for most of us, there is still great value, and great pleasure, in the sort of traditional archival work that led Farge to write her succinct, lyrical and very wise volume. The mellifluous rendition in English is a credit to the translator, Thomas Scott-Railton, and there is an elegant introduction by Natalie Zemon Davis, herself a most distinguished historian. The book is filled with bons mots though Farge sagely warns readers about the dangers of facile quotation. Journeying to an archives, for early-career and senior historians of today, whether across the city or the globe, going through the steps necessary to get signed in, and then eagerly awaiting delivery of a box of documents is a special pleasure: ‘the tactile and direct approach of the material, the feel of touching traces of the past’ (p. 15). One never really finishes work in an archives; there is always another file that might reveal something crucial, but time, energy or computer battery power eventually run out before the historian has completed the prowl (the word is Farge’s) through the papers. But she reminds us, too, that ‘historical writing should retain the hint of the unfinished … refusing to seal off or conclude anything’ (p. 123); every work, even a published one, remains a work in progress, with more questions for a further project or for later researchers. Insightful for those who labour in a variety of fields different from the social history of ancien régime France, and still as pertinent as when it was first published, The Allure of the Archives is both a guide to research and historical thinking and a fine meditation on what Bloch called ‘the historians’ craft’.


Christopher, E. 2011, A Merciless Place: The Lost Story of Britain’s Convict Disaster in Africa, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Fitzpatrick, S. 2013, A Spy in the Archives, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Robert Aldrich is Professor of European History at The University of Sydney. He carries out research and teaches in the fields of modern European history, the history of colonialism and imperialism and the history of sexuality. His recent publications include Gay Life Stories (Thames & Hudson, 2012), The Routledge History of Western Empires (co-edited with Kirsten McKenzie, Routledge, 2014), and Cultural Exchange and Homosexuality in Sri Lanka: Sex and Serendipity (Routledge, 2014).

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