Annual Meeting Preview: Into the Archive: American Historians and the "Archival Turn"

This session takes place on Thursday, April 4, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia
Twitter: #AM2965

Chair: Jim Downs, Connecticut College

• Yael Sternhell, Tel Aviv University
• Clare Corbould, Deakin University
• Brian Connolly, University of South Florida
• Shauna Sweeney, University of Toronto

Into the Archive: American Historians and the "Archival Turn"

What is the “Archival Turn” and why should historians of the United States care about it?

In 1997, Nicholas Dirks, a renowned scholar of modern India, called on fellow historians to recognize that the archive “not only contains documents but is itself the primary document of history.” Dirks had been working in Britain’s colonial archives for years, and had become sensitized to the many ways in which the British government’s archival practices framed allegedly neutral records about the peoples under its rule. He went on to do fieldwork on the archive, much like an anthropologist studying a new culture, and drew far reaching conclusions about the mechanisms of collecting and keeping records that both shaped and reflected the British agenda in India.

Dirks was an important voice in the interdisciplinary reevaluation of the repositories housing historical documents, also known as the “archival turn”. Like many other “turns,” the new critical attention to archives grew from the meditations of two of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who offered highly abstract, yet uniquely protean definitions of the term “archive.” Historians have responded to the challenge by digging deep into the histories of the archives in which they work. They have discovered worlds of power struggles, cultural forces, ideological underpinnings, and personal influences, all of which have molded the raw material available to scholars. At this point, many fields no longer conceive of an archive “as the only space that is free of context, argument, ideology – indeed history itself,” as Dirks had put it.

For reasons which are not entirely clear (and may be worth looking into in their own right), this methodological shift took longer in reaching United States history; it is only in recent years that Americanists have begun to ask similar questions about the repositories from which they draw their sources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these initial inquiries all revolve around archives documenting the country’s most brutal chapters – chattel slavery and the war that brought it to an end. Can the experience of enslavement ever be represented in archives assembled by enslavers rather than by the enslaved? How have the Federal government’s archiving policies determined what we know, or think we know, about the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction? And how have oral testimonies by people formerly enslaved, collected decades after the fact, helped to fill in the gaps while simultaneously creating new archival challenges for scholars using them?

These are some of the questions participants in this roundtable have been trying to answer in their research into the histories of American archives. The conversation will strive to be as expansive as possible, and should appeal to scholars in every subfield. Rather than simply introducing the speaker’ projects, it will challenge conference participants to rethink the very essence of their work as historians and to tackle the discomfiting fact that historical evidence is largely shaped by the circumstances—political, economic, social, cultural—of its preservation.


Yael Sternhell, Tel Aviv University


Posted: March 28, 2019
Tagged: Conference, Previews