The Paper Trust

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A certain amount of the crucial business of history has always been preserved only in the memory of those who transacted it. The size and importance of that “unrecorded record” is now growing. This is why contemporary Presidential libraries are undertaking extensive interview programs. The Kennedy Library, for example, already has taped and transcribed about five hundred interviews with such key Kennedy men as Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and Pierre Salinger and with a host of others who knew the President—a cast of great variety, including men like U Thant, Richard Cardinal Gushing, and John Glenn. (Such transcripts are held under the same rules of confidentiality that apply to written materials.)

Oral history fills gaps in the written records. But is it possible to interpret them, with the gaps filled, or does their overpowering massiveness make them impenetrable? True, dazzling technical means of storage and retrieval of information are available. Given the investment of enough money and time, it is perfectly feasible that all Presidential or other documents can be “read” and “memorized” by computers before being microfilmed and filed. Then a historian may be able to give an electronic command to some robot Clio, such as: “Bring me all the materials on assistance programs to rural areas in Southeast Asia from 1958 to 1970.” But what will he do when she faithfully beeps, rumbles, and neatly prints out fifty thousand references on the topic. Will useful synthesis then be possible?

Such a question gets to the root of what history is all about. Modern “scientific” history was born less than a century ago. It aimed to be more than—or at least different from—philosophy and literature. It rested on the happy nineteenth-century assumption that there was a discernible pattern, coherence, and direction in the affairs of humanity- discernible, that is, when the whole record was collected and scanned. The historians were like Roman soothsayers reading the entrails of a sacred beast. The beast was the past. And he who knew the past, in a sense, knew the future as well.

But what will happen when the record is so gigantic as to become an abstraction like infinity itself? Then the Presidential libraries, like all contemporary research libraries, may remain as husks without kernels, like the cathedrals after the high point of the Age of Christianity. They will be souvenirs of time past, but not the active centers of a civilization’s faith.

Their long, loaded shelves may only increase the perplexity of modern man, who, even without a glut of records, is already likely to find history uncomforting and incomprehensible.