Sunday, 27 April 2014

What about the silence in the archive?


So I spent a chunk of time this month at the National Archives of the United States in Maryland (above). And since one of this blog's purposes is to uncover some of the actual practical work of being a historian - its art and craft, rather than its theory - it's good to come clean about what we historians both do and don't find when we dive into these memory holes. 'Public Policy and the Past' always tries to come clean about being a historian: the times when we just don't have enough time to photocopy everything on our topic, or those days when we run out of inspiration and just flake out while transcribing some difficult handwriting (or the like).

This trip raised the question: what about the times when you don't find as much as you'd want? I began with a question: to what extent did the United States' Clean Water Acts of 1946, 1956 and 1965 owe to European models, and specifically Britain's attempts to survey and scrub its rivers and estuaries? To what extent was 'transnational policy learning' occuring, to use the ugly jargon of technical policy writing? Well, more than you'd think. There was lots in Washington's policy files on the Rhine, and the German environmental movement. Plenty on the Pacific and the deep ocean. More than you could easily read on developing countries' cleanup efforts - surprisingly. And some great vignettes - only little snippets, mind - about the (mistaken) belief that the Soviet state was powerful enough to prevent widespread pollution. But about Britain? Well, not so much. Quite a lot of good material on oil pollution, which'll be handy when I come to write about the Ocean Dumping Treaties of the early 1970s. Some good papers on international co-operation in the North Sea. But it wasn't exactly a treasure trove.

So - what to do? Write about the way in which the British had a surprisingly small influence, especially given their own self-image as scientific 'leaders of the world'? Or have another go, through some other archives. Well, for a while at least, it's got to be the latter. I might not have had enough time, or skill in this particular coalface, to tease out something that really is there. So it's back to the UK National Archives in Kew, off perhaps to the Irish National Archives, and through of course some personal papers (including those of Prime Minister Harold Wilson). Maybe there'll show me something that wasn't easily accessible in the papers of the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.

But in the end nothing might come up. We might have to conclude (drum roll) that we don't know, and to the extent that we do, we can put up a sign saying only something very uncertain: 'we haven't found anything here'. And it's important to be clear that we have to be happy with that. Nothing might have survived; there may have been no policy contacts; and, most importantly of all, we might be forcing an impression of co-operation forged in an age of NGOs, environmental fervour and constant academic contact onto an era that didn't think in the same way.

It depends on the questions you take with you. As Joanna Bourke of Birkbeck has recently noted in an insightful talk at the British National Archives, our interests are in constant interaction with the materials before us. Now, in the hundredth year since the outbreak of the Great War, we're thinking a lot about the energies and the fears unleashed in that great crisis. Our interests in gender and emotion, so different from the concerns of historians in the inter-war or post-war periods, are shipped with us into the archival records we study. There's lots there, in her case, as she shows if you listen to the podcast. But other concerns that we've learned to think of as important might not have struck our forebears as worth forging - and, most importantly in terms of the archive's practicalities, preserving.

Bourke calls these the 'deafening silences that are often the historian's lot'. We have to accept them and chug on, contetedly or otherwise. But they're a frustrating part of the discipline.

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