Even with the seductive abundance of the Internet, visiting an archive holds a distinctive allure. To sit and study artifacts is to be transported to a different time and place, to be a voyeur with impunity, probing the lives of others, reading private letters, looking at family photographs, trying to understand how people could have possibly behaved so foolishly, or so wisely. It is quiet, sustained excitement. A time machine to the past.
My recent research on the psychology of collective violence brought me to a new collection at the Rhodes House Archive at Oxford University—on the anti-apartheid movements and the pro-apartheid responses within South Africa and internationally. Although the checking out of archival materials was scrupulously regulated, the archive made me comfortable right away, with its carved wooden birds of prey at the ends of each well-polished banister and the giant portrait of Nelson Mandela and other heroes looking down approvingly from the high walls. I had come to research the militant ideologies that supported apartheid and those that opposed it, and I had come to the right place.