I have finally started listening to Serial. I’m fond of This American Life, so am unsurprised that I am enjoying the spin off. I’ve read some of the why-Serial-is-problematic commentary, and a few episodes in my overall reaction is that it’s good to bring up issues of white privilege, (mis)representation, etc.—that’s a thoroughly reasonable angle to critique—but it doesn’t feel like there’s a fatal flaw for a piece in this genre of reporting. It’s mostly important to remember that it is a genre, with its strengths and limitations and intended audience.
The thing that made me identify with Koenig—and yes, I am the intended audience, and as such I am absolutely intended to identify with Koenig rather than the victim, convicted murderer, or any of the other players—was discussed up front. The ways in which her work became personal; the fact that this case became hers simply by virtue of being in front of her. I’ve become fascinated with a quilt and a toy meat grinder, and came to care about Canadian railways thanks to my first archival crush, Norman Jacobs. I understand the obsession Koenig references.
I am also sympathetically uncomfortable with the object of her obsession. In an earlier version of the preceding paragraph, I referred to Norman Jacobs as my Adnan Syed. But that isn’t accurate. By virtue of their birth dates, the equivalency is false. Investigating their stories is technically different; the impact of telling those stories is likewise different. I prefer my cases significantly colder than Koenig’s.
Then again, I could make exceptions, depending on what fell into my lap. I used to feel anything modern was almost cheating, and then found myself becoming more interested in the Early Modern period. When researching Norman Jacobs, I reasoned that I was in fact interested in the long nineteenth century,* but no rational historian reckons the nineteenth century long enough to encompass the 1930s. Recent works in progress feature twenty-first century primary sources. While I would not count Britton Chance or Bentley Glass as archival crushes, I feel a definite investment and affection—and both men passed away more recently than Hae Min Lee.
Perhaps that is the real source of my discomfort: not the knowledge that Koenig is operating on sensitive ground, but that I am not so far from that ground as I like to think. For purposes of undergraduate theses, “history” was defined as anything that happened twenty years ago. As a twenty-year-old, that seemed eminently sensible. Approaching my twentieth college reunion, my perspective has shifted somewhat. Working with papers of varying vintage has also informed a more complicated relationship with history. There are restricted materials which will sit on a shelf for decades; but I (and far more importantly, the institution) know they are there, and eventually other people will, too. It’s just a matter of waiting. And it’s not just a matter of waiting for an arbitrary date, but waiting for someone with a reason to care. Even if the only reason they care is because of a project that fell in their lap.
This is how things are “discovered” in archives: somebody cares enough about a thing to talk about it.† It’s no different in other fields—the Syed case existed before Koenig talked to any sources or Best Buy tweeted about pay phones—it’s just that in the archives there is a very concrete thing to be discovered, even if it is only rendered important due to its service to so amorphous a concept as a narrative.
And of course the public history aspect complicates any attempt to say “history is old stuff.” Well, perhaps not “of course”: classifying oneself a public historian can imply something about institutional affiliation and audience while saying nothing about subject matter. But in practice, for me right now, my public history interests outside the office tend to dovetail with digital humanities and material culture of recent vintage. If I acquire another archival crush, I hope it will more strongly parallel Norman Jacobs than Adnan Syed. But that’s not a sure thing. A still-living crush is a strange thing to contemplate, even without the additional awkwardness of a murder conviction.
* Except for the time spent researching his sisters and their children, initially to look for evidence of Norman’s fate in their obituaries, but also because their stories were interesting in their own right.
† Well, most of the time that’s how things are discovered. Sometimes they really do disappear for a few decades and then turn up in a corner somewhere.