Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The past is lost

It's impossible for us to recapture the past. No matter how hard we search we are incapable of finding information about the vast majority of human history, to say nothing of understanding that information or discovering facts about the vast stretches of time before the inception of human consciousness.

What, then, do historians do? It is historians, after all, who are charged with discovering, collecting, and analyzing information about the past. Is the historical enterprise merely a joke, foisted upon bored high school students?

The answer, I'm sure virtually all historians would agree, is no. Study of the past is legitimate and worthwhile. But more than that, it's also really hard.

Why the gloom, you ask. Surely history can't be that hard. People have been doing it for millennia.

Well, yes. But I'd argue that they haven't done a terribly good job, and that historians have largely failed, though it's not entirely (or even mostly) their fault.

The ways in which we lose information in the past are myriad. What follows is merely a sketch, and is hardly meant to be exhaustive. Still, it should make clear just how little we really know about the past.

First, there are countless bits of information that never enter human consciousness. Every moment of every day we are bombarded with sensations. Right now, my field of vision encompasses the screen of my laptop, my kitchen table (strewn with two books, my journal, my cell phone, and the newspaper), a bookshelf, and my dog sitting beside me. And that's ignoring what I can see outside through the sliding glass doors. The sounds I'm exposed to are just as varied. Only through making a conscious effort to notice these things did they enter my mind. Everyone constantly filters the stimuli they're faced with, with the result that much of what goes on around us never registers and therefore never has a chance to be recorded for posterity.

Of course, not everything people notice becomes part of the historical record. As I've written before, "when each person dies, innumerable unique memories vanish forever." Even if we were capable of noticing everything that goes on around us, it would be of no use to future historians unless we recorded that information in some form.

There is no simple correspondence between what people observe and what they record, be it by writing in a journal, taking a picture, or what have you. If we were to make a concerted effort to capture all our experiences, we'd be sitting around all day, writing. When you're doing that, you really can't experience all that much. In short, the artifacts (documents, photographs, etc.) of human experience capture just a small percentage of human experience itself.

More knowledge about the past is lost to historians for the simple reason that records are lost. Just today I learned that the 1834 fire that burned the British Houses of Parliament destroyed virtually all the records of the House of Commons. But loss of historical sources need not be so dramatic - books can crumble, photographs can fade, audio tapes can get tangled beyond repair. And, just as perniciously, objects just get lost.

So now we've got ourselves a repository of sources to use in writing history. Typically, this will be an archive that has collected the papers and objects associated with given individuals or organizations.* It's an exciting place, at least for those of us who like reading old newspapers and that kind of thing.

But archives are vast, making it almost impossible for a researcher to examine every possible source that touches upon their topic. Suppose someone's writing a history of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). They'd spend a considerable amount of time, no doubt, at the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College. In an ideal world, they'd take the opportunity to look through the FHL's rich holdings to get an expansive view of Quaker history. But the FHL has "more than 42,000 books, pamphlets and serials, 290 major manuscript collections, and 9,000 volumes of original meeting records." There's simply no way for a single historian (or even a team of researchers) to look at all of that material.

Now you could argue, "Yeah, but Quaker history is a huge topic. How about something smaller, like the history of a particular meeting?" And you'd be right. The smaller the area of research, the easier it is for a historian to have a look at all the available sources.

But when historians move beyond microhistories like the history of a specific Quaker meeting, or the history of a single factory, it quickly becomes impossible for them to examine all the materials and sources that could prove fruitful in their research. In short, not only does a huge amount of information about the past never become available to historians, it's not even the case that all the information that is preserved ever comes before the eyes of a historian.

To sum up everything so far: the sources that historians can actually get their hands on and use in the writing of history represent a miniscule percentage of information about the past.

Here's an analogy that, I think, captures just how difficult doing history is. Imagine that someone from Mars, who knows nothing about Earthly sports, wants to write a book about baseball. Not just the game itself, but also baseball stadiums, fans, free agency, whatever else you can think of that's related to baseball.

Here's the source they get to use: a single aerial photograph of Fenway Park during a Red Sox-Yankees game.

Care to write that book? Good luck with that.

History's like that, too. While the baseball metaphor is, perhaps, a bit overstated, the point is that the sources available to historians don't give us nearly enough information to write an accurate or complete account of the past.

There are at least four points where information about the past is lost and becomes unavailable to historians:
- People aren't aware of everything that goes on around them.
- People don't record everything that they're aware of.
- Not all records of people's experiences survive to the present.
- In spite of this, there's simply too much material for historians to look at all of it, and most historical sources go unexamined.

So before historians even begin their research, they're at a considerable disadvantage, because information about the past is severely limited. It should come as no surprise, then, that historians haven't succeeded in recreating the past. But neither should it come as a surprise that they're largely blameless for it.**

*In an essay that I already linked to a few weeks ago, Tim Burke pointed out how archive’s organizational headings actually construct our research agendas, that you get a radically different sense of what the archive contains when you read widely across its total span. He's writing about the National Archives of Zimbabwe in particular, but I think his observation holds for most archives.

**Historians can be blamed for all sorts of things once they do get around to doing whatever it is historians do. I'll be writing about that at some point.

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