Plus ça change? Part II of History’s Babel, 1911-1925

Sorry for the long gap. The funny part is I did actually finish reading Part II some time ago, I just hadn’t gotten around to writing about it. And in looking over my notes on these chapters, I will repeat something I said earlier on Twitter: it’s interesting to see how many of the issues at stake in this period are still being discussed today. Here are just a few examples from my notes:

Regarding the “New History,” as articulated at a 1910 AHA meeting: ““The earlier generation’s focus on political issues simplified the relationship between archivists and researchers, for instance, by limiting their work primarily to documents and correspondence by politicians and government officials. By introducing methods developed in disciplines that had broken away from history (including economics, political science, and sociology), as well as other disciplines (such as geography and psychology), historians gathered under the New History banner challenged this relationship by encouraging historians to start using other historical materials to get at their ‘social facts.’ This placed new pressure on archivists and documentary editors to gather a wider range of materials, and led to often heated discussions about allocating resources to gathering and disseminating source materials about ‘everyday life’ alongside traditional political and military subjects.” [p.80]

  • What I find interesting in this is that I’ve seen instances in which historians still think archivists need to be told this, as if most archives are still only documenting the lives of “great white men” and their institutions. I didn’t realize that this focus on social history started as early as 1910. Somehow I had the impression that this movement was a product of the ’60’s, but perhaps that’s just another wave of New History.

Speaking of the developing leadership of the archival profession:  “At the same time, … the leaders of the effort made it clear that their responsibilities encompassed a wider array of constituencies—requiring value judgments about what to keep and what to share that would not always be driven by the interests of historians.”  [p. 103]

  • Again, I theme I’ve seen repeated recently regarding appraisal.

We also see some discussion about the field of local history being left to “writers with more of an antiquarian or genealogical interest.” [p. 90], and much interesting –although tantalizingly, not enough for an archivist–information about the early development of archival practices and standards: “Waldo Leland’s survey of ‘fundamental principles in relation to archives’ and Victor Paltsits’s outline of a ‘Manual of Archival Economy’ for the use of American archivists,’  both published in the AHA’s report for 1912, provided a nascent sense of identify and professional coherence.” (p. 103) Another interest of mine in reading the book is to trace the development and identification of the historical profession as such. In Townsend’d discussion of these issues I see similarities with the current struggle to define (or not to define) the archival profession. For example: “As a check against the disruptions in the unity of what it meant to be a historian and conduct historical work, members of the discipline struggled to define specific characteristics and skills that could clearly mark someone as a historian.” [p. 88]

So for me it was interesting to see, in some ways, how little has changed. But what were your reactions to the developments of Part II?

3 thoughts on “Plus ça change? Part II of History’s Babel, 1911-1925

  1. I don’t have the book or my notes in front of me at the moment, but just wanted to respond to your comment on surprise at how early Social History was happening. I think what we often think of as “social history” is actually “New Social History,” but that other forms of social history were being practiced long before this. I don’t think gender history, women’s history, or even a lot of ethnic history were being practiced on a large scale until the 1960s. However, African-American and black history were championed fairly early on, particularly with the availability of slave narratives. (I’m thinking some of the major journals in this area actually began in the teens and ’20s). I suspect the later social history would also include discussions or urban/rural divide, environmental history, etc….a la William Cronon.

    One facet of social history that really divides it from my favorite, cultural history, is emphasis on cliometrics – quantitative methodological approaches rather than necessarily quantitative. I don’t recall this being a major part of the discussion in the book, but it’s definitely interesting to see how sources like the census were privileged over other sources such as personal narratives. Cultural history (which came into popularity later…more in the 1970s, I believe) placed importance on personal narrative, but also suggested more emphasis on redefining our sources – rather than using a strict definition of the “archives,” more of a cultural archives encompassing art, music, folklore, landscape, etc.

    So that wandered a bit more than I meant to be…sorry!

  2. The thing that struck me the most about Part II (especially the teaching section, which I found far more compelling than I had anticipated – especially that part about the AHA working with the College Review Board to specifically downplay other disciplines!) was what a large role WWI played in the development of the ‘historical enterprise’. I think this was more pronounced in the chapters on the development of historical scholarship and teaching than perhaps in archives, though I guess it came up there as a “We have less funding because of the war, therefore let’s concentrate our scarce resources on scholarship.”

    Also agree with y’all on the new history early timeline – something that was a revelation to me as well.

  3. A little late to this thread, but to echo the other comments, I also enjoyed this book, was surprised by the early date of “new history,” and was pleasantly surprised by how interesting the teaching chapters were. I do wish he’d gone deeper into the development of the social studies movement, but unfortunately that fell outside his scope. Also, I had happened to read the SAA@75 article about Leland, Buck, and Cappon () just before starting this book, and it provided a nice archives-based foundation for Townsend’s work.

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