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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

On the impossibility of conference reports

At least, the impossibility of doing conference reports if one is actually participating, what with the having to be in the moment during the actual speaking/reacting to questions bit, the anticipation beforehand (this can involve very selective listening to earlier pieces in case there's something one could usefully allude to), the afterthoughts ('Did I really say that? - cringe'/'I totally forgot to mention X'), etc.

Besides, it's all rather fading now. I was too exhausted on Friday and over the weekend to summon up the energy to post about either Sexuality and the Archive or the Population Investigation Committee: its history and influence over the last 75 Years.

Somewhat unusually, at both of these I was speaking from my 'archivist position', however much that's informed by also being a historian. Roughly speaking, the 'archivist position' is that no historian (or other academic) is a hero to the archivists, however notable they may be. While my sense is that archivists put in quite a bit of time and effort to open up their collections to a range of potential users, very few potential users have much idea about key archival issues such as provenance, diplomatic, and the sheer contingency of the creation of the record. Or, I sometimes think, the value of perusing the catalogue.

On an analogy with Peter Bailey's wonderful paper title, 'Did Foucault or Althusser ever play the London Palladium', my reaction to people who get way theoretical about the archive is 'have these people ever been i/c a searchroom full of family historians, school children doing projects, a jamming microfilm reader and a photocopier needing constant replenishment, while trying to, you know, actually try and catalogue some archives?' or 'Seen the papers in the coal cellar in which they had been stashed, the other batch in the corner of the attic under the loose tile where the rain/pigeons got in, managed the transfer, done the initial sort and weed, the arrangement, the packaging and cataloguing, and finally publicised the available collection?'

Having said which, both these symposia have left me with a number of useful points theoretical and factual.

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