Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History.
A title with "archives" in it might seem to indicate a book targeted only at archivists of whatever stripe. Further, in terms of works of interest to oral historians, an archives book would appear to be only of specialist appeal: oral historians dealing with archives, or archivists who might include oral history projects in their collections. As such, the title of this work is very misleading.
Archive stories are "narratives about how archives are created, drawn upon, and experienced by those who use them to write history" (6) and they address the way contemporary scholars and the modern world organize knowledge. Burton's very definition of "archive stories" reverberates with oral historical sensibilities, particularly when understanding that "archive" includes people's memories. The term "archive" means any mode or site wherein knowledge is gathered together: a tattooed body, an institutional library, a person's memory, a person's entire life. This definition changes our understanding so that archive becomes an active rather than a passive concept, a socially dynamic rather than a typologically static collection, one that is revolutionarily democratic rather than elite.
For oral history, this conceptualization creates a new framework that allows for its broader legitimization within academia as well as linkages to theories and fields rarely considered before. That the book mentions and delves into oral history as a viable field may reflect the advances that oral history has made since the 1970s. Although oral history is not a focus in this anthology, Horatio Roque Ramirez's article involves oral history in its core sociohistorical frame. The benefits of the book to oral historians lie largely in the theoretical expansion that implicates oral history and its connections to other disciplines and methodologies. Oral historians will immediately sense the implications, for example, in the various discussions of memory culture. As a point of connection with our field, the essays in general accept and build upon the kind of social and cultural history that serves as a basis for oral history. The degree to which oral historians will find this primarily post-modernist theoretical expansion useful will depend, of course, on the degree to which any individual oral historian is open to theoretical applications of the field and can actually use the theory to make research more meaningful.
Burton writes an excellent introduction to her subject and its broad potential. The rest of the book consists of case studies, most of which document scholars' experiences working in physical, traditional archives. Although replete with the theoretical keywords, phrasings, and references, Burton's writing style in the introductory essay makes the theory understandable, laying it out quite sensibly, making it apparent that "archives" as commonly understood is simply a code word for a bank of knowledge, whether "embodied" in an architectural place like a library or in the experiences that inform a person's memories and take shape as narratives, or oral history. Oral historians should viscerally understand her emphasis on archives as both the repository and the launching pad for history, in fact the very authority of historical creation. Her essay is a useful part of the book for oral historians wanting to comprehend how their work actually does fit in academic discourse, or for oral historians who want to recognize their own work as more than methodology. Her pithy and insightful summaries of each essay are a useful guide for the researcher.
Horatio N. Roque Ramirez writes an enlightening article about Teresita la Campesina, a Latina transgender performing artist, where oral-history-as-archive, or repository, of people's histories plays a central theoretical role. The inclusion of his work in this volume is important, for oral historians who still fight for credibility in and out of the academy, but also for the health of cultural studies, whether housed in the various disciplines or practiced in museums, historical societies, any other non-profits, or by independent practitioners. His treatment challenges the idea of architectural archives in the common sense, but also the idea of archive as simply a "site." In this case, Teresita is viewed as a "site," or rather, her entire life, body, and expression as "site." Rather, he sees the archive as a constantly evolving, creative expression, one that Teresita herself created. Roque Ramirez provides meaningful heft to the larger message of this book's compilation, that archives are never static, are never impersonal, are always latent reservoirs for creative expression; and in so doing, he connects oral history to the larger landscape of our human endeavors, not simply to create meaning in our world, but to realize that meaning resides in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.
The other essays typically use a social and cultural historical approach, often invoking or implicating oral historical methodology or theory, for example, by incorporating their own archive experiences as historical narratives. Some authors--like Renee M. Santilles, Adele Perry, and Helene Pohlandt-McCormick--discuss oral history's usefulness. That oral history is integrated into the discussion in these holistic essays should instruct historians and oral historians both that the historical enterprise consists not of one approach nor reliance on one story but a full comprehension of all. Burton has performed a service to the fields she covers, but mainly to the grand goal that I believe nearly everyone who engages in research is initially enamored of: the pursuit and expansion of knowledge. With this fine compilation of perspectives and ideas, connected throughout by threads of common and uncommon understanding, Burton enables us to increase our understanding of the nature of historical research.
John B. Wolford
Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis
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|Author:||Wolford, John B.|
|Publication:||The Oral History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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