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.


7 responses to “in Indonesia

  • David Adam

    Ever since I stumbled across this blog on the interwebs it has become one of those quirky little niche blogs that I follow religiously. I treasure every post! Thank you 🙂

  • Johanka

    ditto the commenter above me 🙂 I feel I need to break the ice, at last. So, anyway, hi!

    What you write in this entry (and in some earlier ones in a similar vein) best describes why I, for one, haven’t become a historian, although I greatly enjoy reading the research and pondering the theories and methods and how they relate to literature and other fields in the humanities/social sciences. I feel I just couldn’t stomach the politics of academia and all the underlying bureaucratical structures. It’s a sad world where people often have to go against their principles in order to be able to do the things they really love. That said, I’m sure a brilliant person like you will make it unscathed. Good luck to you, and keep up the awesome blog!

  • Buster

    To add to the chorus of approval, I, too, recently ran across your blog and was pleasantly surprised to find a kindred soul lurking in the libraries and archives.

    I’d be curious to know about the specifics of Indonesian archival culture, as I’m a sucker for tales from the archive. When and if you get a chance…

    (By the way, I love the bookporn!)

  • Kyle

    These comments make me smile, Rachel, remembering. Has it already been so long since I wrote something similar?

  • Rachel

    Thanks everyone, for the kind words, and for stopping by!

    @Kyle: perhaps five, six years? such strange, modern worlds we inhabit, you and I…

  • R J Keefe

    Your entry made me think of Ranke, who doubtless barged into each and every archive that interested him with some sort of royal warrant. Open sesame!

    One of the side effects of democracy is the replacement of precedence by everyday politicking. As you say, no one teaches undergraduates that the acquisition of credentials is merely a sine qua non, more of a first budge than a first step.

  • Anna

    Have you stopped writing at your * elsewhere* link to Idlethink?
    The link is broken 😦

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