The Power to Penetrate: Archives as a Doorway to the Past

By Genevieve Bentz
Darnton speaks at a Libraries of the Future event. Jisc / Flickr

Darnton speaks at a Libraries of the Future event. (Jisc / Flickr)

Robert Darnton is a noted media scholar, professor, and director of the University Library at Harvard. A trustee of the Oxford University Press and the New York Public Library, he has also served as president of the American Historical Association and helped found the Gutenberg Project. Among his accolades are a MacArthur “Genius” Prize Fellowship, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Humanities Medal, and election to the French Legion of Honor. His work focuses on the history of the book and media censorship, specifically in 18th-century France and 20th-century East Germany.

Here I talk to him about what it means to curate a library, how technology affects cultural understanding, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks.


GB: As a historian, your job is both to collect and curate. With so many new sources of information, competing world views, and the inherent politics of selection, how do you determine what is “valuable” or worth space on your shelves?

RD: Well of course I work mainly on the 18th century, largely in French sources, although my last book, which is a book about censorship, dealt with 20th-century Communist East Germany and 19th-century British India, so my views are on lots of different archives. In each case, of course, for me, the archives are absolutely central, the archives provide the foundation of the scholarship which I finally publish. So much of my research is a matter of locating the relevant archives.

It is not relevant to the question of what archives should be preserved today. I’m dealing with archives that already exist, but one thing I have learned, in now a lifetime of working in different archives, is that the organization of archives is absolutely crucial to the way you organize a book and even your understanding of the subject. That may sound puzzling but people who haven’t done the extensive work in archives don’t really understand—why should they?—what this kind of work is like.

The researcher comes into a set of archives that are already organized according to the way they were generated. So if they are state papers, they could be the archives of the interior ministry or the ministry of foreign affairs. Or if they are family archives they might be a correspondence between a mother and her daughter, et cetera.

Now your perspective on activities is determined by the run of archives in whatever series is made available to you. So a famous example is Tocqueville’s famous masterpiece, The Old Regime and the Revolution, which many read at some point or another in college. It is a great book, a very important book, but its central argument is that France became centralized, so over-centralized that the state was dominating life throughout the country, and this was a problem that was directly connected with the French Revolution, with centralization as the theme. Now Tocqueville studied a particular run of the archives, which was called the “Series C.” In France, the archives all have particular denotations. If you read the “Series C,” it is all about intended correspondence with the central government, and it is as if the central government is absolutely controlling the country. But if you read another series it doesn’t look like that at all. Tocqueville, although he was a good researcher and a great historian, had his perspective skewed by the fact that he depended on a particular run of archives that gave the impression that the state was controlling everything, and so state control of everything became his main theme.

I have been very conscious of this in my own work. I’ve studied police archives, for example, where the police are patrolling the book trade and arresting booksellers, and it can make things look as though, again, the state is very active and has gotten everything under control, whereas the opposite could have been true. I have to allow for that. That is a long answer to your question but my point is, to a very great degree, the nature of the archives, the organization of the archives, determines the kind of history that will be written from them and therefore archiving is absolutely crucial.

There is a great deal of exchange that is done by talk, by gossip, by conversation, by gesture, that takes place all the time and it goes unrecorded.

GB: What do you think have been the more surprising archives you have stumbled across? Something anomalous or alluding to works that hadn’t been otherwise recorded, as when, in your book, Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, you found and used book ledgers that revealed secret and unrecorded books? What is the process of finding these texts, knowing that archives are inherently biased? What has been surprising and thrilling to discover?

RD: In a way, the greatest thrills come from the surprises. It is when you find something you are not looking for, when you stumble upon a dossier or a letter that turns up when you are looking for something else. That has happened to me many times.

What I try to do, when going through runs of archives, is to look—it is kind of like browsing books in a bookshelf—to look [at] what is contiguous to the file I am using. Maybe the example I would cite most concerns not the last book I published but the one before that, called Poetry and Police.

I was in the archives of the Bastille, which is in a particular library, Bibliotechque de l’Arsenal in Paris, and I was tracing a particular person, an important figure in the French Revolution, and I am looking for this guy and I came across a folder, a very thick folder, called “The Affair of the 14.” It just had that label written on the outside by the archivist. There were no details about it in the catalogue and I thought, well, I’ve never heard of this. What is the affair of the 14? So I opened it and started reading and it turned out to be a detective hunt, a police inquiry, into the way poetry was recited and sung all over Paris around 1749–50.

The police did an elaborate investigation of particular poems attacking the King and the royal mistress, the courtiers, politicians; these poems were recited in public places. They were set to tunes that people carried in their heads and they were sung all over the city. They were seditious, at least in the eyes of the police, so it turned out that this affair of the 14 was a way to understand oral communication—and oral communication is one of the hardest things for historians to understand because by the nature of it, most of it disappeared. People sang songs that were political, exchanged gossip, and no record was kept of it.

I found this dossier (that I was not looking for) to be so intriguing that first I wrote an article about it and then I wrote a full-scale book published by the Harvard University Press two years ago, called Poetry and the Police. So that is one example.

GB: Do you think that, with modern technology and the ability constantly to update what one is doing and what one is thinking in real time with platforms like Twitter, that the difference between oral culture and literary culture is collapsing? Or are they still defined?

RD: That is a good question. Well, the short answer is, I don’t know. A medium-sized answer would be, I think there is a great deal of exchange that is done by talk, by gossip, by conversation, by gesture, that takes place all the time and it goes unrecorded. In fact, I think body language and just casual comments occupy most of the communication we do, and it is in a different sphere of communication activity from that of the written, not to mention the published word.

Now it is true that, with tweeting, texting, and so on, that people are exchanging messages on a scale that is undreamt of, but that is not oral communication. These are people writing words that are transmitted, so what the receiver actually deciphers are combinations of letters that take the form of words. That kind of communication has changed texting and tweeting and blogging and all the rest, but it is, I think, quite different from oral communication. True, it is more casual, it is more spontaneous, and we are told that some teenagers spend so much time tweeting that they don’t actually see one another. I can’t say whether that is true or not—I tend to be skeptical when you get exaggerated reports about some spectacular transformation of communication systems. I do think we are living through a transformation of communication that is every bit as vast as during the time of Gutenberg, but I don’t think it means that oral communication has ceased to be important or has been eclipsed by these new media.

GB: Much of the power of oral communication comes from context, whether it is talking between friends or intended to be subversive. It seems that as a historian you are grasping in the dark for the context behind these communications and works of art. How do you put the pieces together when you are working with difficult texts in inherently flawed archives?

RD: It is very difficult, and I think we must be very skeptical about our own powers to penetrate this very obscure part of history. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. What it does mean, I believe, is that we should be very demanding of ourselves in the use of evidence. I will give you an example from the book about the “Affair of the 14.” It turned out that all of Paris is singing songs about politics and current events. That was around 1750, which is a time when there were no real newspapers. What did appear were in the form of periodicals that were heavily censored—so how did people get information?

I argue that they got a lot of their information by hearing songs, because everyone carried around in their heads repertoires of the same tunes and people are improvising new verses of those old tunes every day. The verses were usually about current affairs and were often very funny and very bawdy and were, in the eyes of the police, somewhat seditious. So the question is, how can you actually capture that experience? Having found hundreds and hundreds of texts of these songs, I wanted to know what they sounded like, because all you find in the manuscripts, in the archives, are “sung to the tune of” and then they give you the name and tune but you’ve never heard of them! I found in the musicology division of the Bibliotheque Nationale France, in their archive, keys to the actual musical annotation. So you can look up the title of a tune or the first line of a famous tune—once famous, now completely forgotten—and get the actual music.

A friend of mine who is a cabaret singer in Paris agreed to record these songs according to the original music. I have an appendix with a dozen songs the police were especially trying to repress The reader can read the text of these songs, in French and translated, but then can go to the web where there is a website and hear the actual songs. So that is an example of the possibility of actually hearing the past, maybe not perfectly, but hearing things that had escaped research before. That is just one example of at least my own efforts to penetrate deeper into this obscure, very remote world of sound as part of the historical process.

GB: It reminds me of Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings, where those weren’t inherently subversive but they point to an aspect of culture which is often overlooked. It also reminds of some of the earlier attempts at documentary photography, especially with sharecroppers in the Great Depression, the work of James Agee and Walker Evans, trying to capture a period of time before it disappears.

RD: Yes, exactly. And, of course, oral historians have done fabulous work of this sort. My own work is very small in comparison with what they’ve done. I completely agree, photographs and recordings and all kinds of images are really crucial in understanding the past. When it comes to sharecroppers and the period of the Depression, we know a tremendous amount about it thanks to oral historians and photographers.

GB: Moving toward censorship, which creates a kind of anti-archive of works that are banned and cannot formally exist, what are the common modes of getting around institutional suppression? I know humor was used a lot, especially in the Soviet Union, as a means of sharing societal critiques; I know subversive songs have been used throughout history, which you explore in 18th-century France. Do you think these all need to take the form of something innocuous? How does the form respond? Oh, it is only a child’s song so it can’t be threatening?

RD: I think it varied a lot according to the nature of the regime and how effective the policing of information was. Certainly sans estate communication turned out to be crucial in places like Poland and Czechoslovakia. In the case of East Germany, less so, but then there was West Germany and a lot of books that were smuggled into the east. There were some cases—I mention this in my book on censorship—you’ve got censored texts published in East Germany and the full texts published in West Germany and then West Germans would type out the suppressed passages and they would get smuggled back into East Germany and the typed passages could be inserted in the part of the books where the cuts were actually made. In reading the book, you’ve got these inserted typescript pages that make the whole thing come alive in a way that was really quite spectacular.

I think that publications should be free to be blasphemous but they should ask themselves whether they have a responsibility not to offend.

There are examples of sans estate–type publications that were effective in Russia. In earlier times, well, again I think it varied. One thing that was certain is that manuscripts, newsletters, and poems—manuscript communications of all kinds—continued to be important after Gutenberg invented moveable type and the importance increased rather than decreased, so there was a lot of manuscript circulation that went on from the 15th century, through the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries, so you have three centuries of all kinds of manuscript communication that took place outside of the control of authorities.

A lot is going on and of course you’ve got people reading books aloud—that was very common in India—and as they read they are not just readers they are also actors, so they act out things and communicate all kinds of messages, including making fun of the imperialist powers while they are reading. The actual message is stronger, thanks to gesture and mime and all sorts of other things.

GB: It reminds me of James Shapiro, the Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University: a lot of his work focuses on the hidden messages in Shakespearean plays, subtle critiques of the political climate in which they were written. I’m fascinated by the clues and contextual elements that get lost. Do you think that technology can help preserve these nuances or do you think that the fact that everything is so accessible at once means that texts are overwhelmed rather than augmented?

RD: A good question. I think that in terms of Shakespearean scholarship, the key thing is the scholar. Someone like Shapiro, who really understands the context deeply, can pick up echoes and messages of all sorts in lines that would otherwise appear to be quite innocent. In this case I would say that the technology is not so important, it is the reading of the scholar. That doesn’t mean that in other cases technology isn’t crucial—you can have different versions of texts and compare them and see what has been cut out and what has been added in, you can have access to them thanks to digital technology which makes them available on a scale that is spectacular. Then of course when you have people taking photographs from smartphones and exchanging them over the internet you have got information of a new kind traveling at a new speed—something that eludes the effort of the state to control it, something we certainly saw happening during the so-called Arab Spring, where that kind of communication turned out to be crucial.

GB: Looking forward at future archives, you have a new genre of encyclopedic things, such as Wikipedia, which present a constantly shifting and growing amount of information without outside control and which anyone can edit. A particularly fascinating part of Wikipedia is the editorial standards forum, where people debate what to include where. There is a tremendous amount of debate around pictorial depictions of Mohammed within the Mohammed article, with some claiming it is important to show historical depictions because he is a historical figure, and others arguing it is important that the entry reflect the current beliefs of Muslims and therefore not have any accompanying images. As our reference sources increasingly conflate history with current attitudes, how important is it to have a historical record and how is it possible to keep it separate from modern day opinion?

RD: I am not sure I have an answer. Of course it is possible that you could offend—in a serious way—large portions of the population by publishing information that they see as sacrilegious or blasphemous. Even to publish caricatures about the Prophet of course turned out to be deeply offensive to Muslims, and we all know what the result of that was. So, should newspapers censor themselves when it comes to that? And what about Wikipedia, which pretends to make available information about all kinds of subjects. . . I don’t have any pretensions to issue guidelines to publishers about how they ought to behave.

Personally, I am for having as much information available as possible, but I was in Paris at the time of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and I participated in the huge protest that followed it a couple of days later. Certainly, I think the French were correct to find terror a threat to freedom of speech, so the threat can come from many quarters, not just from the state or from the church. At the same time, the French charged that they had a right to blaspheme and I was a little puzzled by this. I understand that freedom of the press would include the right to say offensive things about various religions—that is what Voltaire was doing all the time—but on the other hand I think blasphemy can be deeply offensive to many people, including Americans, who are very sensitive to blasphemous references to Jesus and Christian figures.

I think that—and this is only my own opinion—publications should be free to be blasphemous but they should ask themselves whether they have a responsibility not to offend. I think you should avoid things being offensive, even in casual conversation. Occasionally I have said something that my children have said, “Daddy, that could be offensive,”—so I am not advocating censorship, but I do feel in very sensitive issues of this sort, the decisions made by the publisher or the writer or the speaker should take into account the sensitivities of the audience to which they are directed.

GenevieveGenevieve Bentz is an editorial assistant for The Brooklyn Quarterly. A freelance writer and photographer, she graduated from Princeton in 2012 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.

Join the Conversation