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?

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

  1. This is also the perfect book for me to be reading. As a recent dropout of a History Ph.D. program, it feels comfortably situated somewhere between validation and self-help. When Townsend traces some of the genealogy of the professionalization of history, and the drive to legitimize it more as a hard science, I can understand why I found the field to be limiting even today. In my program, I encountered deep divides between the academic and public history sides – the academics tended to believe the public historians were borderline paraprofessional, and that their work lacked the rigor and theory required for real history. Meanwhile, public historians (including archives-inclined folks) scoffed at how far removed they thought academics were from reality – too mired in theory. I think Townsend’s book points out how, in efforts to carve out distinctive professional identities, we often circumscribe ourselves. But draw a Venn diagram of archives and history professions, and I like to believe there is a lot of overlap.

    So this leads back to your question…”Do you think it’s accurate to equate “the historical enterprise” with “the archival enterprise” or do you see distinctions?” I think these discussions are increasingly more semantic than anything else. Granted, these distinctions are huge when, say, applying for jobs, but the academy is changing. And (sorry to sound jargon-y here) more trans/interdisciplinary work – American Studies, gender studies, even some progressive archival studies programs – allows professional titles to be problematized and redefined. Within the field of history, the work of cultural historians in expanding the definition of sources seems like an invitation for archivists to rethink their own role. I like Verne Harris’ suggestion that the job of archivists is not to simply serve as custodians, but to contextualize the records. He comments, ” too frequently archives are opting for the neatly packaged information product rather than the rich contextualisation of text.” I know he is considered a bit radical for suggesting that it is the task of archivists to contextualize…some argue that such work is in the strict domain of historians. Yet as someone who works in government archives, I can attest to the fact that I practice history every day – tracing the complex history of state agencies, explaining why certain records survived and others didn’t, or explaining what Michel-Rolph Trouillot referred to as silences in history.

  2. Hi everyone! I wrote a summary of many of my notes (and several places where I feel like Townsend missed the mark in a true understanding of some of the things archivists hold dear today), but then realized they would be spoilers for where we’re at in the discussion. I’ll hold my further comments until the following week!

  3. This book is always at the right time for me since I wear all these hats and more down in my little corner of the “enterprise.” And I’m enjoying it the more I read and am coming to realize where some of the false dichotomies that have been my experience straddling what I perceive as kindred arenas have come from. It is striking to me that an a long time employee of AHA, this book purports to have the feel of a tragedy, where the organization is the profession or enterprise but it became splintered and lost its grip on the reigns. For what it claims to be, the research is compelling, but in my opinion is over-dominated by the footprint of AHA’s original purview. The net is much wider now, as Kate has said, and as the fissures become fractures they begin to break away, bump into conflict, and overlap with other professions, particularly in the context of archives – museums and libraries which are mentioned only briefly. One thing that I would agree with in setting out the scope is that the history of archives begins in the pursuit of history as an intellectual discipline – not personal rights, good government, civics, or information. We suffer if we forget or turn our backs on this origin, even if those in control of academic history first turned their backs on archivists as equals in pursuit of knowledge. So yes, the archival enterprise is a subset, or at least was. And unfortunately, according to this model, as the profession becomes more well defined and mature parts of what were once the archival enterprise start to get lopped off and shunted aside. Such is well underway.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Michael. I expect you’ll have something to say, then, about the questions I raise on the next post about Part 1. The think while the archival enterprise may be considered a subset of the history enterprise (if, indeed, such designations are at all useful, which they may not be), the stakeholders and audience for archives have now expanded far beyond the original dependence on historians as the primary users.

    And I do think, although I haven’t finished it yet, that the premise of the book is correct that the narrowing of the view of the historical enterprise Townsend describes is unfortunate. And so I think it’s appropriate for it have the feel of a tragedy. History is bigger than academia, as I think the President of AHA wrote recently. (I need to find a link to that article, will post when I do.)

  5. Here are some recent observations from William Cronon, President of AHA, which I think speak to some of these issues:

    His Presidential address, Storytelling:

    And the “From the President” column of the January 2012 issue of Perspectives on History, “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age”:

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