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The Good Way to Do History

The Allure of the Archives

by Arlette Farge, translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, with a foreword by Natalie Zemon Davis
Yale University Press, 131 pp., $25.00
© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Candida Höfer: BNF Paris XXIII 1998; the reading room at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, designed by Henri Labrouste, 1862–1868

Take the title as a provocation: The Allure of the Archives. What, you may ask, could be less alluring in the digital age than an apology for deciphering words scribbled on paper several centuries ago? Even more provocative, Arlette Farge’s book first appeared in French in 1989, two years before the creation of the Web, not to mention all the subsequent technology, from search engines to smartphones, that now might make archival research look outmoded.

Farge, one of France’s finest historians, could not see into the unfathomable future of electronic communication when she wrote her book. She was looking backward into the eighteenth century, and her view was inflected by the debate surrounding the bicentennial of the French Revolution, which was at its height in 1989. Yet her argument for understanding the human condition by studying the traces of it left in archives is now more pertinent than ever. If read from the perspective of twenty-first-century issues, it can be taken as a challenge to some currently accepted wisdom—for example, the following assertions, which appear on talk shows and Op-Ed pages every day:

1. We live in the information age. Misleading. Every age was an age of information, each in its own way. In The Allure of the Archives, as in several of her other books, Farge shows how information traveled through the media of eighteenth-century Paris. Primarily oral but intermixed with printed material such as chapbooks and popular engravings, the flow of talk and images (also, I would add, songs) shaped a collective consciousness that often erupted in violence. Public opinion, Farge argues, existed among the common people, not only at the level of the literate elite, as Jürgen Habermas and his followers maintain.

But it was not a discourse linked to the Enlightenment. It swept through the streets of Paris in waves of “popular emotions” (“émotions populaires,” or riots) more powerful than anything spread today by Twitter—or rather anything related to the ordinary course of events. Texting and smartphone photography inflamed millions from the moment when the self-immolation of the Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, ignited the Arab Spring. July 14, 1789, expressed a similar “logic of the crowd,” as Farge put it in an earlier book. The Allure of the Archives teaches that information has always been flammable, even in societies where it operated by word of mouth.

2. All information is available online. False. We have digitized only a small portion of the books in our libraries. According to a well-known but unverifiable estimate by one of Google’s engineers, 129,864,880 different books exist, and Google has digitized over 20 million of them.1 Millions more cannot be located or have disappeared, and most information never made it into books, to say nothing of modern databases. Beyond the world of books is the larger world that Arlette Farge has inhabited for many decades, the world of archives. Her book conveys the sense of adventure produced by plunging into manuscript collections, vaster and deeper than everything available in print.

The French Archives Nationales contain 252 miles of documents, measured according to shelves loaded with boxes full of manuscripts, and they do not include material related to defense, foreign affairs, and overseas territories. France’s one hundred provincial archives contain far more—about 1,753 miles. Still more can be found in municipal archives, various university archives, and private collections. Most of it has never been read, much less scanned. The Allure of the Archives should give pause to anyone who thinks it possible to get an adequate picture of the past by looking at a computer screen.

3. The future is digital. True but trite and also misleading. Digital messages composed from combinations of microscopic ones and zeroes already surround us in the present, but they have not driven out texts made up of letters imprinted on paper. More books are produced in print each year than the year before—an increase of 6 percent in the United States in 2012. The production of e-books is also expanding, although less rapidly than in the recent past. To imagine a future in which the digital destroys the analog is to misunderstand current trajectories and the history of communication in general. New media do not extinguish old ones, at least not in the short run. Instead, they enlarge and enrich the information landscape. There is no denying the demise of vinyl records or the threat to daily newspapers, but it is wrong to imagine digital technology flattening out every other mode of communication.

The Allure of the Archives puts this common misconception in perspective. Although it is not a disquisition in media studies, which barely existed at the time it was written, it shows how old-fashioned research can produce new insights. By immersion in the archives, Farge has been able to capture the tone of life, the idiom of social interchange, the elements of idiosyncrasy and conformity, of deviance and resistance, that constituted the world of the common people in eighteenth-century Paris. This kind of history can speak to those who have no particular interest in the Parisian past. Its affinity with work in other disciplines—the sociology of Erving Goffman, for example, or the anthropology of the late Keith Basso2—will help shape the future of social science, irrespective of the balance between the digital and the analog.

Of course, archival immersion will not of itself produce good history. The Allure of the Archives is a reflection on the experience of long, hard research in manuscript sources and on the difficulties of working up the results into a persuasive interpretation. Farge devotes much of the book to the experience itself. Italicized chapters written from the viewpoint of a fictitious beginner inform the reader of the difficulties to be overcome—not just the obstacle course of getting certification for admission into the reading room, but the psychological and even the physical discomforts encountered along the way. This account is still valid for the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, where Farge can often be seen, pencil in hand, dossiers piled high, at seat number 1, her favorite, or number 37, her second choice, she says, which she takes if she has been delayed by a second cup of coffee and too much reading of the morning newspaper.

But her report on working in the Archives Nationales is out of date. The inventory room, which she describes, tongue in cheek, as a freezing torture chamber, no longer exists, nor does the old reading room, which was approached through the magnificent courtyard of the Hôtel de Soubise. Everything has been packed off to modern quarters far from Paris at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, which have excellent heating and room for two hundred miles of shelves.

No matter: Farge’s main point remains valid. Wherever they are, when first approached, archives are intimidating. Even if the setting does not unnerve you, you feel daunted at the enormity of the task: how to convert endless scribbles on paper into something that could pass for history. You must select a series—that is, one of the categories in which the documents are classified, usually according to the institution that originally produced them. But every series imprisons the researcher within boundaries that limit his or her perception of the subject. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the greatest researchers in Farge’s field of study, exaggerated the centralizing tendency of the monarchy, because he worked within the C series, the correspondence between royal intendants and Versailles, which gives the illusion that the intendants had subjected everything within their territory to the long arm of the state.3

After you have committed yourself to a series and started ordering documents, the first box arrives. You undo a faded ribbon on one side, fold back the cover, and pull out the top dossier. You start reading, one document after another, one folder after another, one box after another. The sequence could go on forever. How to make sense of it all?

Farge gives advice, much of it surprising. Copy out excerpts, she says. Not one or two, but hundreds. By copying you will absorb a turn of language, some of it peculiar to individuals, but all of it imbued with the tone of another era, which sets the past off from the present. I believe that Farge is right. Like her, I always arrived in the archives armed with index cards and pencils. I summarized documents and copied excerpts from them onto the cards, stored the cards in shoe boxes, and worked through the boxes when I drafted books. It’s a kind of marinating, an absorption through the pores.

That, admittedly, sounds like hocus-pocus; and whatever its value as a method, it is certainly obsolete. When I last worked in the Archives Nationales, scribbling notes on index cards—difficult to find these days—and trying to shut out the tap-tap of the computers all around me, I felt hopelessly antiquated. At one point, I came upon a document so rich and lengthy that I asked the archivist on duty whether I could have it photocopied. She replied with a smile that the copying machines had gone the way of typewriters. I should buy a digital camera. She was right, of course. But digital cameras tempt the researcher to take endless pictures without actually reading the manuscripts. Although the reading can be done later, on a computer, I doubt that it will take place with the intensity of reading the originals, pencil in hand. It eliminates marinating.

Nor will it convey the full excitement of discovery. Farge describes the sensation of holding ancient documents in your hands. The texture of the paper feels somewhat like cloth, whether smooth or coarse. I have sometimes been able to pluck out threads from shirts that had not been adequately ground into pulp from the rags used to make a particular page. While rummaging through the papers of the Bastille, Farge came across an actual fragment of a shirt with a message written on it. A prisoner had included it in a batch of his laundry sent out to be washed, and the message included a request for the laundress to forward the shirt-letter to his wife; but the turnkeys confiscated it, and it ended up in the archives.

Farge pays special attention to handwriting, noting the different degrees of expertise in guiding the pen. She quotes letters from semiliterate writers, pleading for favors, often from cells in the Bastille. They can be so primitive—approximate spelling, words run together, incoherent grammar—that they have to be read aloud so that their meaning can be inferred by listening to the sounds. In deciphering them, one senses the effort to make the pen say what normally came out of the mouth. I once turned up a letter by a peddler who asked a publisher to send him a shipment of books, including:

4 an faires detrui [L’Enfer détruit ou examen raisonné du dogme de l’éternité des peines, i.e., four copies of Hell Destroyed or a reasoned examination of the dogma of the eternity of punishments, an atheistic treatise attributed to the Baron d’Holbach] and
2 heuvre de janjacle rousau [Oeuvres de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two copies of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau]4

The letter shows that the works of the philosophes were diffused at the bottom level of the book trade, but it is the disparity between the content of the books and the peddler’s inability to spell their titles that I find especially moving. Writing, in all its physicality, serves as a measure of cultural distance.

  1. 1

    See Leonid Taycher, “Books of the world, stand up and be counted! All 129,864,880 of you,” Google Book Search, August 5, 2010. 

  2. 2

    See Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Northeastern University Press, 1986), and Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (University of New Mexico Press, 1996). 

  3. 3

    I have discussed this point more extensively in “ Chasing Paper,” The New York Review, December 6, 2012. 

  4. 4

    Robert Darnton, Édition et sédition. L’univers de la littérature clandestine au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), p. 70. 

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