Why are Historians Obsessed with Dust?

I had a few misconceptions about archival research when I first got into history nine years ago. I figured I would find all the forgotten documents buried in exotic archives, write about them and get famous. I’ve since learned that no one gets famous doing archival research. I’ve also learned that archival research involved lots of dust.

“One gets the feeling that a particular manuscript collection has been moldering in the dust of centuries until saved from oblivion by your call slip.”

This is what “top young historian,” Joanne Freeman, 43, told the History News Network. [note: historians age slower than average humans.].

The more romantic the place the more dangerous the dust. Another top young historian, Lisa A. Lindsay, at the very young — 39 — gave dust the context in really deserved:

“The year I lived in Nigeria conducting dissertation research (1993–94), I witnessed three changes of government, two general strikes, countless fuel shortages, and a military coup. I got sick with dysentery, mysterious rashes, and malaria; scabies infected my hands and arms when I worked in a particularly dusty archive.”

Dust was providing shelter to dust mites and leading to scabies epidemics among young top historians. This was total madness.


When Chris Gratien — co-founder of the very popular Ottoman History Podcast — told me he was starting a spin-off site on Ottoman Documents with Sam Dolbee called Tozlu Evrak, I chuckled. I had to chuckle, because I had to prove I understood the Turkish. Tozlu Evrak means “Dusty Document.”

Gratien and Dolbee are both top and young historians, and knew things could get dusty. I pointed out that historians often romanticize dust. Tribes had piercings, gangs had tatoos, journalists had war reportage, and historians had dust. And then it occurred to Gratien and Dolbee the blog was not about dust and documents. It was about removing the dust from the documents. So they renamed the blog, Tozsuz Evrak:

See http://www.docblog.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/

My first visit to an archive was a decade ago. I submitted a paper to peer-reviewed journal, Nations and Nationalism, and received the following feedback from one of the reviewers:

The draft contains a very few, very slight linguistic tics or errors that suggest the author is not a native English speaker (though extremely competent) — such as use of ‘innovate’ as an adjective (instead of ‘innovative’).

Having been described as “extremely competent” in my own native language, I knew my career was off to a good a start.

The second reviewer was less kind. “It was disappointing to realize that almost all the evidence came from secondary sources. A revisionist theory that runs against the grain of so many scholars must rest on much more serious scholarship.”

So I did what any trained historian would do: went out to find some evidence in an archive to support the argument of the paper I’d already written and tried to publish. So I trekked over to the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, where I was living at the time. “You read Arabic?,” the archivist asked me immediately. “You bet,” I quickly murmured in broken Hebrew. Then she asked me for the exact number of the file I wanted.

This is not quite what I was expecting. I knew there were some Arabic newspapers in the personal files of David Yellin. “Can you show me to his section in the archive so I can find the newspapers myself?” I reminded the archivist that I had already lubed up my arms with anti-scabies lotion that morning. No amount of dust would deter me.

Baroor sh’ein lekha musag ma’zeh arkiyon.” “It’s clear you have no idea what an archive is,” she snarled.

My American-accented Hebrew didn’t help the matter. She informed me that researchers — using the word hesitantly, it seemed — were strictly forbidden from entering the archive itself. Still, I would not be discouraged. I reassured myself that it was novelty, not accuracy, that would get my paper published. Surely I would be able find something dusty in that bloody archive so I could brag about it in my application to graduate school.