Part 1 of History’s Babel, 1880-1910

Hopefully some of you will have read the first three chapters of the book which cover the period from 1880-1910. Otherwise it will just be me and Eira talking for a while!

While I may have been exposed to some of  this historical information about the profession in the past, I found Townsend’s presentation of it within the context of the early days of the AHA to be very useful. And of course we see struggles and tensions in this time period that continue to echo in our own. The roots of the archival profession in the discipline of history have led and continue to lead, I think, to an expectation that there is or should be some kind of special relationship between archivists and historians. That is, that historians should have more influence on acquisition and processing of collections than other kinds of users, as described for example in Blouin and Rosenberg’s Processing the Past. This expectation is perhaps natural given the reliance historians have traditionally had on archival materials for their research, but it’s one that I think it is reasonable to question as many archives strive to meet the needs of a wide variety of users. I will be interested in see how the relationship between what become two separate professions evolves in the following parts of the book.

It’s also interesting to consider the past importance placed as publishing archival materials, as described by Townsend in Part 1, and how this echoes the current importance placed on digitizing materials.  However much has changed, the comparative difficulty and expense of traveling to an archives to do research has apparently not. Townsend’s brief references to historians as collectors of original materials and copies is also reminiscent of the historian as “archivist” we see today, preserving copies of born-digital materials or assembling collections of digital copies. And there are hints of the same kind of disdain for genealogists and amateur historians here in the past as we sometimes see today.

One particular section of Chapter 2 certainly raised my interest and made me want to review some of the references cited. That is the discussion about the unfortunate results that were attributed to the creation of two separate commissions for archives and manuscripts. Townsend writes on pp 44-45:

Although the distinction between manuscripts and archives seems somewhat anachronistic now, historically the division followed the sequence in which the two commissions were established and the different interests they represented. Manuscripts were designated as private documents (such as personal papers), while archives were collections of materials produced by government officials and entities. The territories marked out by the two commissions provided conceptual distinctions that endured for generations (to the subsequent chagrin of some in the library and archival communities). [32] In addition to fostering divisions among those assigned to care for the source materials, this separation also neglected important classes of materials that are of considerable interest to historians today, particularly the records of nongovernmental entities such as businesses, labor unions, and churches. [33]

Does the distinction between manuscripts and archives seem somewhat anachronistic now? Certainly in everyday usage, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the word “archives” is used to describe any body of old material, but I think (or hope) within the archival profession the distinction is well understood. It is probably less well understood by historians, and perhaps from their point of view the distinction is meaningless. And of course the records of organizations other than government entities are understood to be “archives” as well, despite being left out of the purview of the commission on public archives.

Did any of these issues strike you as well, or did other aspects of this part catch your attention? Was this material new to you, and if so, does it help you understand the profession better?



The right book at the right time: my thoughts about the Introduction to “History’s Babel”

I love this book already. I may fall out of love with it as I read more, but right now it seems to be the perfect book for me to be reading. Let me explain, and then I hope to hear some of your reactions to Townsend’s observations and the task he set for himself.

I’ve been doing some thinking (and will have to do a great deal more very soon) about the relationship of the archival profession to related professions, including historians, as well as the evolution and professionalization of the field of archives in the United States, and so Townsend’s  topic is ideal for me. I also very much appreciate his scoping of his field of interest as “the historical enterprise,” which encompasses a broad spectrum of players and activities. This seems a useful construct for archivists to consider as we also try to define our relationships with the many different kinds of people related to our own work. Do you think it’s accurate to equate “the historical enterprise” with “the archival enterprise” or do you see distinctions? Or would the archival enterprise be, as Townsend seems to be suggesting, a subset of the historical enterprise, similar to those who engage in research, teaching, and working with museum collections? Do you find value in  this “big tent” approach?

I like the approach because it moves away from privileging or elevating the academic historian above the other players in the historical enterprise. As archivists, I think we are accustomed to seeing a broad range of people who have an investment in the study and promotion of “history,” including genealogists and family historians, amateurs and enthusiasts of all kinds. (As well as academics from departments other than History, educators of all kinds, and our museum colleagues.) (And ourselves, of course.) Although I don’t anticipate that this book will cast its net quite that wide, I look forward to seeing how the discussion of professionalization describes the marginalization of what was once the norm, “the gentleman historian.”

Please share your thoughts about the Introduction here, and next week we’ll begin discussion of the first three chapters (Part 1). Given how Townsend has organized his information, we will probably be spending most of our time talking about the second chapter (the “tools and materials” one) in each of the three parts, but I expect we will draw on the other two chapters in our discussions as well.

I hope you’re as excited as I am (well, maybe not quite that excited) about working our way through this book. I’m glad we choose it and I think it’s going to be very informative and relevant. What do you think so far?

Reminder: Starting “History’s Babel” on April 15–unless you need more time?

Just a reminder that the plan is to start up again with discussion of Robert Townsend’s, History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 – 1940,  beginning on Monday April 15. That date seemed a long way away when I first posted it, but now it’s quite close. I hope everyone has had time to get the book and start reading it. Unless I hear a groundswell of comments asking for more time, I’ll plan to begin on the 15th.

Happy reading!