Researching Around the Surveillance State

Last month in the New York Review of Books, historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote a short essay about her experience with the FBI in late 1952. Upon returning from France, where she was conducting archive research for her PhD thesis, this happened:

Not long after my return, two gentlemen from the US State Department arrived at our apartment to pick up my passport and that of my husband. A publication event had brought them to our door. Early in 1952, I had done the research for and been major author of a pamphlet entitled Operation Mind, which reviewed past interrogations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and urged readers to protest as unconstitutional its announced visit to Michigan. (In 1954, when the Michigan hearings finally took place, students did in fact protest on campus.) The pamphlet was issued in photo-offset, without the name of author, but simply listing two University of Michigan campus groups that had sponsored it. Whatever local readers thought, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased with Operation Mind and sent its agents to the printer, who obliged with the name of the treasurer of the campus organization that had paid the bill—that is, my husband. The seizure of our passports was one of the consequences.

I was devastated, heartsick, by the loss of my passport. I had counted on getting back to the archives in France not only to finish the research for my thesis, but for any future work I hoped to do on my new path of social history. (Remember in those days there was no web, no digitization, and not even microfilms of most documents.)

Natalie Zemon Davis

The FBI visit had left her cutoff from the archives she needed to finish her dissertation. She had only partially finished her research and it isn’t hard to imagine the panic she must have felt. But, Davis turned the blow from the FBI that could have derailed her career before it started (no doubt their intention) into a lever to broaden and deeper her research.

But wait a minute! Those sixteenth-century Protestant books and Bibles, made by the workers on my three-by-five cards, were available in American rare book libraries. I could find traces of printers and other artisans and much more in the pages of these books and their marginalia; even their bindings held treasures. The FBI could keep me from France, but not from the New York Public Library or the Folger or the other great rare book collections in the United States…

This episode also expanded my notions of human response to situations of constraint, both my own and that of people in the past. I realized that between heroic resistance to and fatalistic acceptance of oppression, there was ample space for coping strategies and creative improvisation. Much of human life was and is carried on in this fertile middle ground.

Given the recent dusting off of the Espionage Act by the Obama administration and the NSA disclosures, the Davis essay is well worth your time. Consider it a bit of counsel and hard-won wisdom for conducting research in an age of surveillance.