Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Archive Envy

I knew it would happen. Chris scooped me on my topic of choice for this week (Olive Dickason), and I was about to be reduced to writing about History Television's new Pawnathon Canada (which looks like a kind of a down market Antique Roadshow).

Then I read the most recent post on the Legal History Blog by Dan Ernst, on the Clarence Darrow Digital Archive and Database of the University of Minnesotal Law Library. Which made me fairly green with envy, then made me start thinking it was maybe just a bit Brave New World. This is what Ernst has to say:

The site includes an extraordinary collection of personal letters written by and to Clarence Darrow. These letters include correspondence with Darrow's family members as well as with many other prominent individuals who influenced the development of American law during the first half of the 20th Century. In addition, the site has sections focused on both Darrow's famous and lesser known trials. Incorporated throughout the site is commentary about a wide variety of political and social issues that were of importance to Clarence Darrow professionally and personally. The site contains a rich and unique array of material including trial transcripts, cases, articles, books, photos, and narratives about Clarence Darrow's life and legal career.

This site provides access to a free, publicly accessible Searchable Database of Darrow Cases. Courtesy of Westlaw from Thomson-Reuters, this database contains all published state and federal cases in which Clarence Darrow or his law firm is listed as counsel for one of the parties. The database also contains all published state and federal cases that quote or refer to Clarence Darrow. This database will be periodically updated.

The detective part of archival research is annoying, time-consuming and often expensive. And who doesn't prefer to read sources on the computer screen to microlm, which always makes me feel sea-sick. But at least you own the parameters of your search, to a certain extent--having picked a political legal topic which crosses jurisdictional time zones, ie the switch from Canada West to Ontario, with the archival consequence that only my later half of my sources are in Toronto, I see the temptation of letting archival policy dictate temporal and geographic limits. But we should never forget that archival policy is in fact policy: collections don't just happen. See for example Valerie Johnson, "Creating History? Confronting the myth of objectivity in the archive" in Archives, Autumn 2007 and  John Scott, A Matter of Record: Documentary Sources in Social Research (Polity Press, 1990), pictured.

And isn't it better that the limits be set by the research question? Not that the historians using the Darrow collection will be corrupted by the temptation to assume that the searching has all been done. But the temptation is there.

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