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At the library where I work, I’ve been following up on requests for information placed in newspapers by amateur historians writing local or family histories. I’m constantly irritated by the way the notice will say ‘a history is being compiled on the area/family’. The passive construction is bad enough, but what’s worse is this idea that history is merely ‘compiled’.

I think in the popular mind histories are simply a collection of known facts. If you put together all the known facts about a subject, you have a ‘history’. According to this concept, there is no interpretation involved, no construction of narrative, no presence of the historian.

It reminds me of something similar. The library collects every single book published in our state. The biggest self published book I have ever seen is a massive two thousand A4 page volume chronicling some twenty years in the life of a local resident. Two thousand pages! Not even Gandhi or Churchill deserve that much attention! At least not for twenty years. (What’s more, it has this horrible cursive font running down the spine. I’m tempted to tell you the title so you will come and see for yourself, but then he might google me and I’ll get in trouble. Breaking the mask of objective librarianship and all.) He probably thought the best way to write an autobiography was to write every single thing he could remember.

Which makes me think of the idea of the library as a collection of every single thing ever written, a mass of undifferentiated, unsorted data. Which would make it like the Library of Babel in Borges’ story, where every single possible book has been written, so the truth is buried by endless contradictions and variations of it.

Selection and deselection is everything.