Monday, December 1, 2014

When the Archive Won't Yield Its Secrets

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.

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