The Allure of the Archives

Arlette Farge, Director of Research in Modern History at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, has written a wonderful little book about doing research in archives.

“Contact with the archives begins with simple tasks, one of which is handling the documents.  Combing through the archives—a beautifully evocative term—requires a host of tasks, and no matter how complex the planned intellectual investigation will be, they cannot be bypassed.  They are both familiar and simple, and they purify one’s thoughts, temper the spirit of sophistication, and sharpen one’s curiosity.  These tasks are performed without haste, and necessarily so.  One cannot overstate how slow work in the archives is, and how this slowness of hands and thought can be the source of creativity.  But more than inspirational, it is inescapable.  The consultation of these bundles, one after another, is never finished.  No matter how carefully you prepare beforehand, sampling documents and putting together research guides in an effort to limit the number of texts you will have to consult, your patience will inevitably be tested.”

Archivist reviewing documents

Archivist Matt Law reviews Chinese Exclusion Act Files.; Location: National Archives at Riverside, Perris, CA; Photographer: Joseph S. Peñaranda


“Reading patiently, in silence, you will regularly run up against various obstacles as your eyes travel across the manuscript pages.  Many documents have deteriorated physically, and torn corners or margins nibbled about by time can swallow words whole.  The writing in the margins…has often become illegible, and a single missing word can leave their meaning in suspense.  Frequently, the top and the bottom of the document have been damaged, causing entire lines to vanish.  Or there will be a telltale tear at the fold and therefore an absence…”

“When you’re collecting documents there is hardly any way to leave material aside, because the aim of the task itself is to assemble as much pertinent information as possible within certain predetermined period of time and space.  On the other hand, when you’re looking for the similar, you sometimes cannot help but to linger on the different, if only to figure out whether it’s anything worth using…An unexpected document, outside of the preselected filed, can interrupt the monotonous process of collection.  Gossipy, suggestive, or just different, its uniqueness provides a kind of counterweight to the series that you are in the middle of assembling.  It rambles, diverges, and brings out more information than you could ever have hoped for in the usual flow of combing through the archive.  These distracting documents, these breaths of fresh air, can take many forms, some cheeky, some informative, and others both at once.”

Thanks to Jill Lepore for recommending Farge’s book.

6 thoughts on “The Allure of the Archives

  1. Thank you for the quote. That is so eloquent and so fully captures the heart of the researcher. I think most archivists yearn to be researchers and to live the moments described above.

  2. They say a book makes you live the adventure. Somehow it seems a bit hard to read a book about reading a book as a non-fiction. What would be great could be allowing people to read the manuscripts online like the Google books project – and feel the suspense for themselves

  3. I’ll second that, M’Lisa, so well said! As, too, the quotes from the book in the blog post. Like the photo of the NARA processing archivist as well. Having done projects work and reference as a NARA employee, and also research in my personal time (as have some of my NARA friends), enjoyed seeing this.

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