The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 1st, 2014
Natalie Zemon Davis has spent six decades on the trail of stories
hidden in the archives. Her archival explorations have powered an
influential scholarly career—Ms. Davis is an emerita professor of
history at Princeton University now associated with the history
department at the University of Toronto—and works like The Return of Martin Guerre,
the tale of a 16th-century Frenchman who took over the identity of
another man. Most recently she’s been on the hunt for evidence about the
lives of four generations of a slave family in colonial Suriname.
Popes and potentates are well documented. Peasants and the powerless
get lost in what Ms. Davis calls "gaps and silences in precise
evidence." Archives "are set up according to the categories that are
important to the body that established them," she says. "The first thing
to know is how your archive is structured."
In late October, Ms. Davis delivered the keynote talk at a conference sponsored by the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at University College London. The gathering, provocatively called "Failure in the Archives,"
invited scholars and archivists to explore blind spots and blank spaces
they encounter in their work, and to talk about how they might help
each other do their jobs better.