The University Record, September 18, 2000

U explores new ways of approaching past, of knowing who we are and why

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Throughout this academic year, the University’s Advanced Study Center, part of the International Institute, will explore new ways of approaching the past.

The year-long program, “Archives, Documentation, and the Institutions of Social Memory,” is chaired by Francis Blouin, director of the Bentley Historical Library, and William Rosenberg, the Alfred G. Meyer Collegiate Professor of History.

“There was a time in our world when the accumulation of historical documents was considered a straightforward, and even a noble task,” Blouin and Rosenberg say. “The technologies in the preparation and recording of information were relatively stable. There was a general consensus among archivists and historian users that the documents assembled were critical to the pursuit of a historical truth—that is, the idea that the past was a singular conception, out there waiting to be discovered.”

In recent years, however, innovations in historical theory and practice have challenged this notion, they point out. In the process, historical archives themselves have become not so much “repositories” of the past as critical points of intersection between different scholarly approaches to the past, to the cultural practices and politics of different societies, and to a fast-growing set of new archival technologies. The nature of the record, the expectations for access and notions of archival control are changing,” they add.

These are among the concerns to be addressed by U-M faculty and graduate students, as well as more than 50 seminar participants from the United States and abroad. They also will discuss how current technological innovations are likely to change what we know about ourselves, how we know it and why.

Lectures and panels will focus on the ways archives help produce, reproduce and represent varieties of social knowledge, and in so doing create and recreate varieties of social memory. Particular regional and national problems in Western Europe, the emerging and reconstituting states of Eastern Europe and the former U.S.S.R., China, South Africa and the Americas will be topics of various sessions.

“During the last 50 years, historians have moved away from histories of individuals and institutions that reflect the dominant culture,” Blouin and Rosenberg say. “That kind of history had been a good match for existing archival collections. In recent decades, historical study has turned toward issues of power, underrepresented minority groups, issues of gender, race, all of which are not so easily studied through existing documentation.”

Seminar sessions are scheduled 2–4 p.m. Wednesdays in Room 1644, School of Social Work Building (which houses the International Institute), beginning Sept. 6. The Distinguished Lecture Series begins at 4 p.m. Sept. 28 with Carolyn Steedman of the University of Warwick discussing “Going to Middlemarch: History and the Novel” and closes April 5 with Dipesh Chakrbarty of the University of Chicago presenting “Democracy and the Disciplines: The Case of History.”

The program is sponsored by funding from the Sawyer Seminar program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and various U-M units.

For a detailed schedule of seminar sessions and lectures, contact Michelle Austin, (734) 764-2268 or or visit the Web at