Reading Between the Lines When Archiving History: A Necessary Practice or Just Creating Fan Fiction?

In the article The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings Lauren Klein uses the Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition pay archive service as an example of how archives can tell us stories that aren’t explicitly in their contents. She examines the correspondences back and forth from Jefferson’s letters to create a narrative of the freed slave James Hemings. As she states, “…the issue of archival silence – or gaps in the archival record – remains difficult to address”. (Klein, pg. 662)

So Jefferson was a meticulous man that was obsessed with technology. He printed copies of every letter he wrote and kept his own personal archive of his communications. He also kept early charts and graphs to keep track of his property, including the plantation’s livestock, etc., as well as keeping record of the wildlife in his region of Virginia (and the “New World”) for his writings. These archived materials refer to the slaves on the plantation as essentially inventory, regardless of how close he felt to individuals that would eventually become free men. Of course this is a quick summary of events for my article’s purpose of a much more complex condition of slavery and Jefferson’s own very complicated involvement with it, but the point that I want to bring up is that slaves were mentioned within these letters and documents, but not given their own agency in history through them directly. What Klein discusses is how these archives show us “ghosts” and how digital humanists can expand on these unspoken histories through digital archives. “…the digital humanities, when confronted with the unique demands or the archive of slavery, instead requires a rethinking of what it truly means to know.” (Klein, pg. 665)

Knowing that there are not nearly as many written documents that have been preserved by slaves and freed men than there are of white men, particularly those in power and given historical significance (particularly Jefferson and the other “Founding Fathers”) so we should use the available writings to help give narrative to the lives of those left out of the conversation. As Klein puts it,”…the time has come for digital humanities practitioners to more forcefully theorize the knowledge claims they make.” (Klein, pg. 668)

Image result for thomas jefferson writing
An illustration of Jefferson at his writing table. Maybe he is writing some fanfic.

I understand the importance of finding ways to breathe more life into the lives of slaves, to flesh them out more and make them more real in the eyes of those reading history. I worry about taking too many liberties to fill in those gaps though. Klein seems to stress the importance of the work, specifically how the digital realm would be a way of setting certain things right. “…the field must employ its tools and methods so as to produce humanities critique. Indeed, in its strongest instantiation, the digital humanities demonstrates, through a combination of technical, analytical, and theoretical means, not only what but also how we as critics come to know. (Klein, pg. 668). This is a lot of pressure but also power to bridge empty chasms of data. As we have discussed before in this class, those that set down the histories, from one medium to the next, are given the opportunity to educate but also instill their biases within that data. Archiving the past through documents from the wealthy and powerful will always only tell their side of the story until it is weaved with other clues from history. The digital archivist, though, is then tasked to make sure they do not get carried away and end up creating historical fan fiction to pass on to future generations.

About victoriatimpanaro

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1 Response to Reading Between the Lines When Archiving History: A Necessary Practice or Just Creating Fan Fiction?

  1. sevilaar says:

    Hi Victoria, I absolutely love your analysis. What I particularly like is when you say that Klein mentions the archival gaps that are present when representing black stories but that you caution us from use liberally sprinkling histories and stories too and patching up a solution in a hurry. This is why she stresses that there ought to be a ” combination of technical, analytical, and theoretical means, not only what but also how we as critics come to know.” So my question or rather our collective question boils down to -> okay, so whats the first step- and if the stress ought to be uniformity, how do we go about it and how to we recruit the necessary front-loading by the general public, academia-at-large, and archivists? Because if there’s no uniformity- no consensus of purpose and direction and a strong footing, we can easily get to the fan fiction problem you posit.


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