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Reviewed by:
  • Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History
  • Mark Allen Greene (bio)
Antoinette Burton , ed. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. 373 pp. ISBN 0-8223-3688-X, $23.95.

Archive Stories is an intriguing but ultimately flawed effort to extend the discussion of postmodernism from the practice of history in general to the intersection of professional history and archives. However, one of the chief weaknesses of this book is that it represents little new, and belabors its points in a series of uneven and largely repetitive and predictable essays. It also undermines its very presumption by omitting almost entirely from the presentations even the barest echo of the archivists, without whom no ethnography of an archive can be built. There are earlier and better examples of what Archive Stories seeks to do.

Archive Stories consists of an introduction, eighteen essays divided into three sections, a bibliography, and information about each of the authors. "Our emphasis on the need for archive stories—narratives about how archives are created, drawn upon, and experienced by those who use them to write history—follows in the first instance from a move in the Western academy . . . to recognize that all archives are 'figured' . . . [and] equally from our sense that even the most sophisticated work on archives has not gone far enough in addressing head on the lingering presumptions about, and attachments to, the claims to objectivity with which archives have historically been synonymous" (6–7), we are told in the introduction. Moreover, "there is a marked contrast between the silences in print about these [archival] experiences and the volubility of historians about their archive stories when asked" (10).

These statements are suspect, at least to someone who has been involved in archives and thinking about archives for twenty-three years.1 The literature regarding both historians' encounters with archives and historians' debate about the authenticity and authority of archival sources is substantial (leaving aside entirely the parallel discourse among archivists), and dates back in earnest to at least the late 1990s in such journals History of the Human Science and Rethinking History (the latter going even farther than the present volume in exploring the tension between fact and fiction, archive and interpretation).2 This does not, of course, completely obviate the utility of a new compendium, but if the book were as necessary as its editor claims it would be easier to overlook its weaknesses.

The three sections of Archive Stories are "Close Encounters: The Archive as Contact Zone"; "States of the Art: 'Official' Archives and Counter-Histories"; and "Archive Matters: The Past in the Present." The placement of essays into the sections seems somewhat arbitrary and confusing. For example, two of the chapters in the first section, Durba Ghosh's "National Narratives and the Politics of Miscegenation: Britain and India" (27–44) and [End Page 397] Jeff Sahadeo's "'Without the Past There Is No Future': Archives, History, and Authority in Uzbekistan" (45–68), seem as much or more apropos for the second section. And the distinction between the first and third section, in terms of content, is altogether elusive.

Given the postmodern grounding of this book, its editor might argue that there is inherent value in the multiplicity of stories here, since the postmodern turn emphasizes and values singularity and difference. However, in practice, these stories, so largely similar in thesis and purpose—how many times do we need to be told archives are malleable, of the need to "listen" to the archives' exclusions as well as inclusions, that state archives in particular are loci of power, and that none of this has been noticed before—become tedious and repetitive even in their individuality.

Several of the chapters have appended a few paragraphs about archives to the beginning and end of essays that otherwise have little to do with the subject, giving the appearance of post-hoc editing for inclusion in the book. Others evince an overwrought effort to expand the concept of archive so far beyond narrow traditional boundaries that it is expanded beyond recognition; anything—a life, a novel, published histories—becomes an archive. There is also a naivete by...


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pp. 397-399
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