Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks and the fetish of the archive

One of the most interesting thing about the Wikileaks controversy is just how banal many of the revelations really are. Gulf states want Iran's nuclear programme stopped in its tracks? Well, what a shocker. American diplomats thought Gordon Brown the equivalent of electoral anthrax? You don't say. China is reaching the end of its tether with North Korea? Wow.

You could have read all this in the papers.

I've had one notable chat with diplomats over the last two or three years, and I bet they mentally noted 'historian/ polling expert says there'll definitely be a Hung Parliament'. But everything I said was based on public information.

The Wikileaks storm is rather similar to historians' fetish of the archives. Have a look at what archivists at the National Archives say about the materials in their care:

Many professional historians associate archival research with their rite of passage into the profession. At some point in their careers most scholars have devoted several long weeks to the systematic examination of the carefully sorted primary sources in their chosen field of study.

That's absolutely right as a description - most historians are sniffy about 'historiographers' in their midst who weld together some theories, read some books from the time they're writing about and then fire off a book or article full of stuff from Oxford's Bodleian and what Google Scholar tells them is important. PhDs and referees' reports depend on the creation of 'new knowledge'. The easiest way to do that is to shuffle through file after file of original correspondence, notes or reports (or whatever).

But is this always right as a goal? Sometimes there's a little bit of the feel of a secular, exclusive priesthood to historians' guarding of 'their' archives. Sometimes a little gold light, entirely unjustifiably, surrounds revelations gouged from the historical rockface that could just have been read in the newspapers or gossip columns of the day. Above all, just because it's in an archive (official of not) doesn't mean it's more important than stuff that isn't.

This probably should have been one of the major lessons of the Wikileaks fiasco.