In the archives: a user's perspective.

Author:Schrecker, Ellen


I write as a consumer, a user of archives. I am a historian, who in my over forty years of research on McCarthyism and the American Left has probably worked in at least forty different archives--more if you count the individual collections housed within the larger depositories. I consider my historical work, at least in part, a contribution to making the world a better place. After all, the men and women who want to change history need history. Not only does learning about the past help us understand how our current problems came about, but it also reveals alternatives that can perhaps be resuscitated or at least suggest new strategies. Finally, it enables us to cast a critical eye on our society and work to change it, knowing that the current status quo was not and is not immutable.

Archival research is crucial to that project. Those of us on the left who hope to construct counter-narratives to the accepted wisdom of the day can do so only if we back up those narratives with concrete documentation derived from the records of the past. To be useful, our history must be credible. And that credibility demands serious archival research. While radicals may be looking primarily at radical movements, discovering previously unknown forms of social action, or offering a left perspective on a mainstream phenomenon, they must, nonetheless, carry out their research in accordance with the same set of standards that apply to all historians. They must work with as many original sources as they can. Otherwise, their findings can be more easily dismissed by the powers-that-be.

We need only recall how important the scholarship of radical historians was to the movements for black and women's liberation in the 1960s and 70s. That scholarship, it must be noted, gained acceptance because it was based on years of archival research. Thus, for example, scholars were able to challenge the accepted wisdom that had naturalized female inferiority by bringing their new feminist perspective to what they were finding in previously overlooked judicial proceedings, diaries, and other such sources. Black and white scholars did the same with regard to slavery and Reconstruction, again by finding a usable past in plantation account books, oral histories of former slaves, and local court records. Similarly, in my own earlier work on McCarthyism and the universities, it was only when I delved into the correspondence of a number of college presidents that I was able to find evidence of how extensively the academic community was collaborating with the red scare.

Archives have two main functions. One is to seek out, collect, and preserve as much material as they can, especially the records of those movements and individuals that mainstream...

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