rbm.18.2.133_reviews

Book Reviews

Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures. Lorraine Daston, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. viii, 397p. Paperback, $37.50 (ISBN 9780226432366).

It is a bit unfortunate that, in current parlance, the word science now embraces less than it once did, while the word archive has come to encompass so much. As a result, those who encounter Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures, a new volume edited by Lorraine Daston, may make unreasonable assumptions about its contents, when in fact the topics covered by the twelve historically framed essays are unexpectedly broad—from the history of the planets and earth’s stratigraphy, to the archiving of human DNA samples, to the use of “stop lists” in the thirteenth century and by Google. There is something here for all serious students of the rare book and manuscript field, not just science librarians or curators of data created by or for scientists.

On the contrary, the well-constructed volume covers such a vast and varied terrain that it cannot be easily summarized in this short review. Originally written for the 2013–2014 Working Group “Archives of the Sciences” held at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the authors interrogate the relationship between science and archives, even though they do not always agree on the meaning of these terms. For example, as David Sepkoski’s “The Earth as Archive” shows, treating fossils as evidence of change over time means acknowledging that “the fossil record is both a natural and a human-made archive” (79–80). Similarly, Lorraine Daston’s fascinating contribution on what she calls “two towering archival monuments” of the nineteenth century—the collection and publication of 180,000 Latin inscriptions, often through the making of paper imprints, and the charting of earth’s sky at night, “including all stars to the fourteenth magnitude”—argues for an inclusive definition of both science and archives (171). Suzanne Marchand’s splendid “Ancient History in the Age of Archival Research” describes how the discipline of History became thought of as a science during the late eighteenth century, as the veracity of classical writers of ancient Greece and Rome was critiqued and the few archival sources still available could not buttress their accounts. Thus, the reasons why ancient history is today studied in classics, rather than in history departments, becomes clearer. No less revealing is Daniel Rosenberg’s uncovering of “the long tradition of index reading” by textual scholars, such as Jesuit priest Roberto Busa, who used IBM punch cards to complete the 56-volume Index Thomisticus, a “computer-generated concordance” of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas after three decades of work (305, 289). But was Busa just a word scientist or was he also a humanistic theologian? By focusing on the technology, Rosenberg seems to overlook the religious faith behind Busa’s work.

For all their variety, the essays do bring out a few common threads. First, the authors generally approach their scientific subjects—whether astronomy, medicine, doxography, or climatology—historically. They seem to believe that what we think we know about physical reality is filtered by our past, present, and future interactions with it. The creation of knowledge (scientia in its older, more inclusive sense) is contingent on the context of its creation.

Second, the authors generally spend little time defining archives in any systematic way. Often, “archives,” or “the archive” in the postmodern sense, appear to be synonymous with records, collections, or even data. One of the few authors here to attempt a definition, Suzanne Marchand, thinks expansively of “an archive—as a collection of data brought together to resist its being lost to memory” (139).

Third, the volume seems not to acknowledge archival practice as a science, a problematic omission given that the use of the term archival science has itself grown since the beginning of the twentieth century. Perhaps only in the Epilogue does editor Daston suggest in passing that, “like other scientific practices, archival practices have their history, partly told in these pages, but it is of necessity a longer, slower history. Accelerate the tempo, and the continuity of the archive would be endangered” (332). Are archives so unchanging, or are the changes that are made to archives simply rendered invisible?

Only a few practicing archivists in North America are likely to be responsible for the curation of fossils, of paper inscriptions of Latin epigraphs, or of the other unusual “records” described herein. Indeed, many of the subjects and objects discussed as archives are not normally imagined as “archival” by today’s MLS-trained curators, or they would only be worthy of incidental preservation. What then is the takeaway? For those of us who think historically about the profession of archives (and its long preprofessional millennia), there is a great deal to be learned. Many of the articles should be considered “archival histories,” contributions to the study of humankind’s long history of record-keeping. Indeed, the works of “old fossils” like Sir Hilary Jenkinson are worthy of rereading now and again. A subdiscipline yet to be accorded its proper place within and outside the academy, archival history—like the fine exemplars in this book—examines the fraught contingencies that underlie human attempts to resist the loss of information, cultural heritage, and scientific records to the flow of time. Not only is scientific knowledge always changing, but so too are the records and archives that are both containers for and manifestations of that knowledge.—Eric C. Stoykovich, University of Maryland



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