Sunday, 13 April 2014

To what extent does a historian have a methodology?

So this blogger has just spent a few days at the National Archives of the United States in College Park (this explains the relative radio silence, by the way).

What did this involve? Well, looking at a lovely load of cherry blossom (above) while walking around downtown was pretty nice. 

But the major part of it all involved chugging out to Maryland on the National Archives' (slow but certain) courtesy bus to look at files about US federal water quality policy in the 1950s and 1960s. Hey, it's not that glamorous, but it is fascinating - and it is a vocation, rather than just a job.

The whole thing gives you a lot of time to reflect on the historian's art and craft - such as it is. Because coming to a national archive for just a few days makes you choose. Which series to look at? How to cut through the many, many hundreds of square feet of policy boxes? Which keywords to employ while searching? How to shorcircuit the process?

When you've got the rest of a professional life to crawl over the National Archives of the United Kingdom, or the National Records of (a more and more likely to be independent) Scotland, you can take a leisurely attitude to these sorts of questions. Have a deep dive. Come back next time. Write down some reference numbers from the Whitehall or Edinburgh government notation to look for more material the next time you come. Take your time.

But the ability to fly for nine hours to an archive is necessarily limited. The funding is finite. And - frankly - the desire to travel so far, across the wide ocean, will not last forever. It demands - what's the Blairite phrase again? - a lot of hard choices.

So I went for a mixed approach. Some files came up from keyword searches. The next book's about The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain, and anything and anyone that I could summon up about British water politics sure as anything went in the digital camera archive. The 1967 Torrey Canyon oil disaster? Apparently an American fisheries team shot over from Ireland to Cornwall and London to see what was going on - and advise Washington about future oil cleanup policy. Yep, that went in there. And the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment? Apparently Uncle Sam relied on the 'Britishers' (as they seem to be referered to in the relevant file) to push the Brazilians and other non-aligned countries in the UN towards a 'western' position. You can rely on me to get all that material copied. 

But beyond that relatively focused approach, there was a bit of a race to get as much as I could out of the place. Deciding that it was better to try to seize on a couple of record series than spread myself thin for the few hours that I had, I went over the records of the Water Pollution Advisory Board and the Department of the Interior's water policy files. And some great stuff came up from the stacks. Not much on transnational policy transfer (a high-falutin' term for learning from other countries), it's true - though there were a few gems about how the American officials throught Europe and the European Economic Community worked. On the other hand, there was a huge amount of material on the 1946, 1956 and 1965 Acts that really stood behind the more famous 1972 US effort to bring in regulations about clean river, estuary and oceanic water. It's going to be a good contrast and comparator to the British material, and that's for sure.

But the whole experience highlights perhaps-unanswerable dilemmas of the historian's work. To what extent have I just grabbed at what I could, and left behind the vital insights that would have come out of a longer engagement with these particular files? Have I just had imposed on me, my work and my book the structure of US federal agencies and the archivists who've filed and re-filed those papers? To what extent has the tyranny of the keyword search meant that I've just meshed my own historical mind with those of the file-title writers?

The answer is: I don't know. And no-one else does either. It'd be nice to have a hard-and-fast set of rules by which to cut through the archive, but history (and History) are a strange mix of a humanities and a social science subject. We march into the archive with every good intention of finding out truths about how the world works, but we know that only a fraction of the past has survived, and for political and administrative reasons as well. We know that we're time-constrained, with families, teaching commitments, graduate students and lives to live. Sometimes we just have to do our best, with a humanistic commitment to honesty about what we can find out.

We've got covering laws, of course - a social democratic version of public administrative history and post-Keynesian economics, in the current writer's case. That's our methodology, vague and unsatisfying as that can often be. But we have to recognise that sometimes, and in terms of what appears in our books and articles, chance and speedreading are as important as our principles and training.

It's a strange feeling, to have one's professional skills hang in the balance in this way, but it's reality.