Monthly Archives: January 2009

in Indonesia

I am, have been, and will be for some time yet, in Indonesia. This may or may not excuse my absence, though I hope it accounts for it.

I wanted to jot some thoughts down about archives, and working in them. I’ve had the incredible opportunity, in the last several days, to be working in the Indonesian National Archives (Arsip) under the benevolent and truly door-opening auspices of an affiliated and highly regarded research program in Leiden, to whom I shall always be eternally grateful. Far from being subjected to six months of bureaucratic scrutiny of foreign researchers and other such unfortunate hindrances, our small clutch of researchers has been welcomed into the Arsip with open arms. Results: access to its rich document holdings, a tour into the Arsip’s massive Depository (where Everything is Kept), endless and incredibly generous dinner and lunch engagements with the Arsip’s eccentric and wonderful staff, and for me, a better sense than I’ve ever had of how these hazy administrative realms of academia function. These are the things you can’t even begin to fathom as an undergraduate, and the things nobody will actually teach you directly, in part because it would seem somehow indelicate: the intricate politics amongst archive staff; the politics of your research topic in relation to what the archive wants its materials to be used for; the tussles between institutions and governments about access to documents; the relationships one must build, painstakingly over time, with people — fellow scholars, archivists, custodians, important people — who can help you get that elusive, evasive thing that all historians desperately crave: access.

All this is delicate, and difficult to write about. Even while writing this I’m becoming all too aware of how difficult it would be to expound publicly on any of these lines of thought. I’m a little saddened that I’ve slowly but surely become cognizant of these boundaries of discretion — it feels a little like the loss of innocence — but they are there, and I’ve probably already broken a few. Suffice it to say that I’m learning, more and more, that it’s never going to be just about the research; there’s always other things you have to do to get that research done: certain ways you must conduct yourself at an archive, certain infantile procedures to respect, certain nice or difficult people to deal with (for ultimately, everyone is ‘nice’ or ‘difficult’ in some way or another), etc.

I also feel strongly, though, that this is not to say that one must calculate one’s behaviour at an archive in any Machiavellian way. I really do believe that if one is and behaves as a decent human being, treating those around you with equal decency, generosity, patience and respect, one cannot go far wrong. And this is surely what should be required of anybody in any vocation and any rank in life, not least of all these hopelessly idiosyncratic creatures who call themselves historians, and who just want to sit down with endless boxes of documents and read, dammit.