Friday, March 29, 2013

The Arc-Hive Mind?



I have spent this past week conducting preliminary research for my dissertation prospectus at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. While there I had an epiphany (of sorts) about the problems academic historians have reaching a broader public. Unlike, other critics that point to the difficulties presented by academic writing or stress that the nuance of academic histories are too much for the “average” reader (whoever that is), I think the problem is the archive or rather, the relationship between academic standards of evidence and narrative.

Two interrelated events led to my epiphany. Working at a massive research facility like Archives II, I was confronted by a dizzying array of brilliant historians and archivists. Everyone had a thoughtful research project. The reading room resembled a historian hive with researchers buzzing between carts, computers, and copy machines. The collection of source material divided into its binders, folders, boxes, and carts was overwhelming. But one thing was missing: narratives. There was no box labeled “Narratives” and you couldn’t find it searching through the online database (believe me, I tried).

After a long day at the archive, I was killing time in Dupont Circle before meeting friends for drinks. I wondered into Kramerbooks and Afterwords - a charming independent bookstore – and began browsing their history new releases section. Being a poor graduate student and an AmazonPrime Member, I rarely peruse the new history releases and was shocked by how few names I recognized despite being a professional (in training) historian. Flipping through books by Mark Kurlansky and other popular historians, I – again – noticed something was missing: the archive. Most of the evidence in the popular histories was from primary and secondary sources; unsurprisingly many journalists were partial to newspapers. These histories were overwhelmingly story-driven. The few histories I had read were from old or deceased academics like Hofstadter, Lasch, Schlesinger Jr., Zinn, and Woodward. It seemed as though the history academy had lost the popular support it once had during the 1960s and 1970s. But was their work really so different? Feeling confused, I walked out empty-handed.

I thought about all the hustle and bustle in the archives earlier in the day and wondered: where is the output from all this research going? Who is reading all the brilliant work produced by researchers at Archives II? How did popular historians come to fill the void left by academic historians of earlier eras?

Then I began to think of the archive. Hofstadter was notoriously archive-resistant. Lasch seems to have drifted from archival work as he became more of a public intellectual after the publication of The Culture of Narcissism in 1979. Schlesinger’s The Vital Center is almost entirely supported by secondary sources. I thought of all the little archive boxes filled to the brim with folders and wondered: are archives limiting our horizons as historians? This problem seems particularly acute with young historians who are trying to evince academic rigor to their senior colleagues. I remember writing my master’s thesis and building chapters around novel archival evidence instead of published material because I thought it would showcase my research ability. Narrative was often the last of my concerns or something I simply hoped would happen if I added enough biographical anecdotes.

Beyond limiting research, it also seems to exacerbate a bifurcation between academic historical research and politics. It seems to me that the archive creates another separate community – along with the academy and scholarly associations – that isolate academic historians from the public. Academic isolation has intensified the professorial argot, but more importantly it has led to group-think about what is important and how to communicate themes that academics believe are significant to a broader audience. I was shocked how few histories of race, sexuality, and gender were carried at a well-stocked independence bookstore (the ones that were carried being published by non-academic historians like Isabel Wilkerson). Military histories still predominate in bookstores and on television, despite its declining significance in the academy. As the Supreme Court debate over DOMA continues, the value of historical context to politics is readily apparent. Histories of gender and sexuality composed by articulate academics, if widely read, could help Americans understand why gay marriage is an important issue in the same way C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow made legible the origins of the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, I think academic historians need to look beyond the archive and focus on storytelling to broaden our audience. Outgoing American Historical Association president William Cronon has already made this point in his annual address, so there is no point to belabor it here, but the question remains: how can professional historians be encouraged to publish books for public consumption while retaining high research standards? Though it will undoubtedly be a long and difficult process, I am confident an accommodation can be reached. It will mean, however, that historians will have to enter the scrum of politics where the rules of reasoned debate rarely hold. But getting a little dirty is a small price to pay for the transformative potential of academic historians acting as popular social critics.

Researchers at Archives II and other reading rooms across the globe have a tremendous wealth of information to share. It is time we began to focus on communicating that information to the widest popular audience. To accomplish this, researchers will need to leave the arc-hive and venture out with their knowledge to pollinate the world.

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