J.P. Daughton, 38
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Stanford University, 2004-Present
The best thing about being an historian, in my opinion, is working in archives. The research for my book, An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914, took me to almost twenty archives on four continents. They ranged from the high-ceilinged reading room of the Archives Nationales in Paris to a small table next to a photocopy machine in a cramped office of the Papeete, Tahiti archdiocese.
Non-historians often ask me what exactly I do at the archives. For me, it is a little like digging through the old papers left in someone's long abandoned desk. An average box or bundle of documents - at least the ones I look at most - is often a hodgepodge of letters, handwritten notes, receipts, a calling card from some forgotten visitor, official reports, and faded photographs. Spending hours sifting through dead people's refuse is not for everyone. But at no point in researching or writing do I feel more connected to my subject than in the archives.
There is something undeniably voyeuristic about archival work: reading letters never meant to be read by outsiders, seeing pictures not taken for posterity's sake, perusing someone else's secrets and exposing their plans. These remnants present great puzzles to be unraveled. Who were these people whose lives we now look into? How did they see their world, and how did they organize their vision of it? Trying to answer such questions inevitably requires looking for more and more sources, opening wider the cast of human characters, complicating the plot, drawing you in like a good mystery. The probing historian can discover things about historical figures - their motives, insecurities and contradictions - that they themselves may have denied or hidden from friends and loved ones.
Archives are also much more than repositories of documents. They are often themselves places where memories of the past come alive - sometimes in astonishing ways. One archivist, for example, at a religious archive in Paris assured me that, had the Catholic missionaries of the South Pacific failed to spread Christianity in the nineteenth century, the cannibal Polynesians would have eaten one another into extinction.
On another occasion, a French woman working in the departmental archives in Tahiti told me that she did not know why so many people wrote critically of colonialism when it was obvious that the Tahitians were happy to have gained the great cultural traditions of the French. While this struck me as a misguided assessment, I was equally surprised to have an octogenarian Vietnamese historian at the national archives in Hanoi wax nostalgic about the 1930s when he and his friends spoke French and devoured the latest books and music from Paris.
I have been in archives where I saw a rat scurry across the floor. I have unearthed worms gnawing through documents. I have seen people weep, sleep, and get angry in archives. I have even seen an archivist pass out from too much drinking at lunchtime. But I have never been bored in an archive. It is a place where Faulkner's often quoted observation -"The past is never dead. It's not even past." - takes on real meaning.
By James Patrick Daughton
About James Patrick Daughton
comments powered by Disqus
- History Relevance Campaign meets at the Smithsonian
- Bernard Lewis Turns 100
- Jean Edward Smith, biographer of FDR and Ike, has a new biography coming out … of George W. Bush
- Flora Fraser, biographer of George and Martha Washington, wins $50,000 George Washington Prize