The Allure of the Archives

The tagline for History in the Margins reads “A blog about history, writing, and writing about history.” (If you’re reading this through e-mail you may never have seen it.  Click on the title of the post and look at the top of the page.  It’s worth doing at least once because my blog design is beautiful.*)  So far I haven’t talked much about the process of writing in these pages–historical or otherwise.  Today  I’m going to stick my toes in the historiographical waters.

French historian Arlette Farge is known for her ability to evoke the everyday world of eighteenth-century France.  In her classic work, The Allure of the Archives, originally published in 1989 and now translated for the first time into English, she pulls the curtain aside and shares what it’s like to work with the raw materials on which her writing is based.

The Allure of the Archives combines elements of memoir, how-to-manual, and musings on the nature of history as a craft into an elegant whole.  Farge moves effortlessly from the physical realities of working in the archives (“Whether it’s summer or winter, you freeze”) to the excitement of discovering a 200-year-old pouch of seeds attached to a letter as evidence to the philosophical challenges of constructing meaning from recorded fragments.  She shares the feeling of dust-stained fingers, the exhaustion of copying, and the frustration of deciphering illegible texts. Abstract questions of historiography and practical discussions of how to organize archival research are lightened with often very funny vignettes of Farge’s experiences working in the judicial Archives of the Bastille: from plotting to get the best seat in the reading room to navigating French bureaucratic mazes.

In less talented hands, this material would be no more than an academic work, interesting only to other academics.  In fact, The Allure of the Archives is lyrical, suspenseful, and humorous in turn. Farge has created a fascinating account of how historians work that will appeal to scholars and history buffs alike.


* Thanks to the brilliant and patient ladies at Sumy Designs.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers

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