Publication Date

April 16, 2020

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor



To the Editor:

As a graduate student in history, I have always felt that the archive, despite its centrality to the craft of a historian, was peripheral to the graduate curriculum. In this era of interdisciplinarity, the divide between the fields of history and archival studies is greater than that between history and its allied disciplines like political science or law.

The archive continues to be the pivot of historical scholarship, even though there is little clarity as to what an archival method might entail. Is historical empiricism the same as an archival method? Or what is the difference between reading and interpreting an academic book and that of a file from a colonial government archive? Are critical reading and analytical skills enough to research in an archive? We often understand the views of a historian based on their ideological commitment (Marxism, conservatism, etc.), but rarely do we interrogate the archive historians use and how certain archives enable them to espouse certain ideological positions or worldviews. Once we ask such questions, it becomes plausible to see the exclusions and inclusions that are constitutive of the archive, and even the historian’s craft. Then it also becomes clear that there is no one archive, but many archives. The archive is constantly being made and unmade in the present. In that sense, the archive is not just a site to recall and order the past, but also a place where one makes sense of “the history of the present.”

It is precisely this suturing of the past and the present through the exclusionary and inclusionary practices of the archive that, I thought, the graduate seminar described by MJ Maynes and Leslie Morris in “Interrogating the Archive” (Perspectives on History, December 2019) sought to achieve. By having students, drawn from three universities, witness and watch the contentious meetings of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota on naming buildings after administrators who indulged in discriminatory practices, the students had the opportunity to understand the competing claims an archive enables. Those who supported renaming relied on the university archive, which speaks to exclusion and institutional power. Those who opposed the change found the same archive inadequate to understand the past in question. As the authors show, occluded in it is the voice of those discriminated against, a “counterarchive” that lies outside the university archive, such as the Black press.

There is often little instruction in history graduate programs in understanding what the archive does, or how is it different from a library. Students learn on their own through protracted archival work, which is sometimes called field work, a phrase that remains in tension with the archive. The lack of academic and pedagogical engagement with the archive is by no means a problem special to the US. In South Asia, archival studies are almost nonexistent in universities. It is crucial that we continue to engage with the archive not just theoretically, but also pedagogically, in order to develop critical historical thinking in the students.

Sarath Pillai
University of Chicago

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