Why major in history? -or- the thrill of the archive

Well, to be fair, that’s probably a more provocative title than needs be, but it was also the header on a packet distributed by my department this year.  All of the reasons were good ones – careers in journalism or policy making; development of writing, speaking and research skills and (though this wasn’t included in the departmental list) good tidbits for cocktail party conversations.  Recently though, I’ve noticed that the media – and particularly TV and movies – provide another compelling reason for undergraduates to major in history: the thrill of the archive.
From shows like Alcatraz to movies like National Treasure to books like People of the Book, it seems like every third thing I see or read has characters who spend their time leaving through boxes of old documents, discovering dog-eared diaries of long-dead molls (a recent episode of Castle) or thumbing through newspaper archives to discover the vital clue in an unsolved crime.  Most of this archival work happens in the context of detective work, but it (perhaps inadvertently) glamorizes the work that historians do in our archival comings and going.
Now, I don’t want to suggest to the students in my methods class that the chances are good that a stray or unexplained letter they might come across in an archive can plunge them into a world of glamourous spies and international intrigue, or put them on the trail of some long-lost treasure (an aside: I’ve been reading through Elizabeth Peters’s non-egyptology series featuring sassy historian Vicky Bliss, which, like The DaVinci Code, present the world of academia as one long car/foot chase with brief research interruptions) but I do think there’s something to be said for conveying the trill of archival research.  For the first time ever, I’m having students blog both responses and about progress towards their final paper, and I hope that once we get into working with actual sources that the students will begin to both express and pick up on each others’ excitement.  In the mean time, I’m playing around with the idea that research and detective work are the same kind of projects.  On the one hand, detective work is concerned with finding the answer to a problem, not necessarily understanding why the problem happened.  History is also interested in the ‘what’ questions, but (as a recent session on asking historical questions reminded) more with the hows and the whys.  Maybe, though, the work we do is more like fictional detective fiction.  In books, the plucky heroine or hero always wants to understand the criminals’ motivations – otherwise the books or shows might make for a dull read or watch.  Maybe there’s something to extending this comparison, and thinking about historical writing like Holmes explaining something to Watson.  In the meantime, though, I wonder if the quite regular appearance of archives in pop culture is another way into piquing student interest.  If the U(C) could say things like “want to be Indiana Jones?  Come study archaeology” then can’t we say things like “want to be Nicholas Cage/solve crime/find treasure?  Come study history!”

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