Ethics & The Archive

This short post was occasioned by a conversation NGSC blog contributor Andrew Welch and I shared on the ethics of archival research while working together over coffee in Chicago this week. Indeed, and because so many of us are engaged not only in grappling with the historical documents that archives provide in support of our research, but also are actively engaged in thinking through the implications of  archival research in terms of travel, the extensive financial resources needed, and the like, I imagined transposing the significant ideas that emerged might be beneficial to readers.

The overarching theme that came to the fore had to do with the locating of evidence for source material with respect to literary antecedents for the primary figures for our projects. Namely, Hume and Adam Smith. The ethical claim that came up immediately had to do with the question of the mechanisms that make, for instance, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, available to Blake–and the need to chart the social networks that would have rendered a particular text legible in a specific way for a given author. The question was: is it sufficient to know that Smith was widely read and his ideas percolated extensively? Or, is it necessary to get into the archives to concretely ground circuits of transmission? To deal with questions like: how could Blake have accessed this work around 1789?  Was the Smith reviewed in periodicals now archived that could’ve shaped Blake’s thinking? Who owned the text Blake would have accessed–likely in the publisher Joseph Johnson’s circle? Who among the authors Johnson is publishing were dealing with Smith? Do they address the moral philosopher’s ideas in letters that can be located in archives and between other figures with whom we know Blake was in contact? And so it goes on.

While these are the research prompts that excite me, I neverthess wonder if there is a sound argument to made for basing inquiry, primarily, on the percolation of ideas. My dissertation being on Blake and ecology, I have to wonder: what about the carbon footprint involved in traveling between Chicago and places as like the Huntington, The Yale Center for British Art, the British Museum and Library, etc? Is it sufficient to argue that because a project contributes to the library of ideas that grasps the historical basis for climate change, even though its process of production is linked to those conditions (air travel is major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions), it is ethically defensible? And then, the question of finance and privilege. To what extent does my project merit the infusion of money, over other projects–to say nothing about more directly socially useful investments of capital? Add that to considerations of time spent writing the dissertation using easily accessible texts versus time spent on fellowship and grant applications (which I truly love crafting, and believe to be important), the time to travel, research, and catalogue, the matter seems much more complex than I anticipated in beginning the project. And with an ethics to be further explored.