22 December 2013

A Torrent of Singularities

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.


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.


Still, her vast experience of archival research led her to reflect on one issue that had not received adequate analysis: what she calls the “torrent of singularities.” Behind every case in the thousands of dossiers she consulted is a singular individual who cannot be assimilated in a general proposition, because there is always another individual whose experience will contradict it. Few historians have wrestled with this problem, because few have attempted to see patterns by examining all the lives exposed in vast stretches of documents.

Richard Cobb, the only recent historian who worked through a comparable quantity of archives, ultimately gave up: he rejected any notion of general trends, and he pictured history as the playing out of countless individual existences, each intent on making its own way through an endlessly varied landscape.

[Excerpts from "The Good Way to Do History," a review of The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge, by Robert Darnton.]

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