Sunday, November 07, 2004

Some pasts are more lost than others

Just in case you didn't believe me when I said the past is lost, go read How women disappear from history on Philobiblon. Natalie Bennett provides a concrete example of the phenomenon that I described in rather abstract and evidence-free terms. This sort of thing (the "forgetting" of apparently important bits of information) happens far more than most people realize.

Now, you could argue that when it comes to the important stuff, like politics, we've got loads of information from well-preserved sources. There's no chance, after all, of us forgetting who the first president of the United States was, is there. And you'd be right. But you'd also be privileging political history as the "important stuff." To be sure, understanding the history of politics is crucial to creating any comprehensive outline of the past, but it's hardly the only thing that matters. There's a whole lot more to the past than elections, cabinets, and bills.

Certain types of history, then, are particularly susceptible to the problems outlined in my previous essay. While I'm sure there are plenty of sources political historians wish they had, their source material is typically a whole lot more obvious than that of social or cultural historians. Governments produce lots of paperwork. Not all of it gets preserved, but a whole lot of it does, providing plenty of fodder for later political historians.

The preservation of sources is not as haphazard as my earlier essay may have suggested. People choose to preserve those documents they find most interesting or valuable. The very selection of documents and sources to be preserved and archives, then, reflects the values of the time, values that do not always match the interests of later scholars.

Now this doesn't mean that Bennett's right, that the female founders of the charitable organization in question were forgotten because they were women. It's possible that charitable organizations as a whole didn't keep good records on their founding. And it's also plausible that the records for this particular organization just got lost somehow, whereas the majority of such female-led organizations did maintain these records. It's just impossible to know without further research.

Still, it's important for historians to remember that many of the sources they use are there for a reason, and many of the sources they don't use (simply because they no longer exist) aren't around for a reason, too.

2 Comments:

At Nov 14, 2004 4:05:00 PM , Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Of course I agree that one example doesn't prove that it is women who keep getting lost, but somehow when you go looking in just about any field of history it is the female half of the human race and the facts about them that seem to disappear far more often than the males.

Before I came across this post (thanks for linking by the way!) I'd already posted about another small loss, or potential loss; how Sarah Chapman, one of the leaders of the famous "match girls'" strike of 1888, had no occupation written on her marriage certificate - luckily she had a not particularly common name; had she been "Brown" or "Smith" it would have been a lot harder for a researcher to find her and follow her subsequent history.
http://philobiblion.blogspot.com/2004/11/match-factory-women.html

 
At Nov 14, 2004 4:27:00 PM , Blogger Danny said...

Yup. You're absolutely right. One of the fulfilling aspects of doing modern history is that there *are* sources available to write women's history. Not as many as would be ideal, of course, but compared to earlier periods, it's a marked difference.

I suppose my hesitance in accepting your conclusion (which I think is right) comes from my current concern about the ability to draw any substantial conclusions about the past. But as long as everyone realizes the whole history thing is a rather speculative endeavor, I become more and more comfortable with drawing conclusions, since implicit in them is the understanding that new evidence or analysis can modify them.

As for Sarah Chapman... I'm always astonished how the little quirks (like how common a given person's surname is) can so dramatically affect our knowledge of the past. Thanks for passing on the link about her.

 

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