“Memories light the corners of my mind”

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This week saw the anniversaries of two significant events — the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  What struck me is that the memories of each event are very different, and not just because no one is currently alive who witnessed the former.

Joel Agee has written two memoirs — Twelve Years and In the House of My Fear.  In an essay for Harper’s Magazine, he reflects on writing his first memoir, saying, “I learned that to remember is, at least in part, to imagine, and that the act of transposing memory into written words is a creative act that transforms the memory itself” (“A Lie That Tells the Truth: Memoir and the art of memory,” November 2007, 55).  He also cites a social psychologist from Harvard named Daniel Gilbert, whose experiments “have ‘left most scientists convinced of two things.  First, the act of remembering involves “filling in” details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously'” (56).

Speaking of psychologists, Elizabeth Loftus delivered a TED Talk on 23 September 2013 entitled “The fiction of memory.”  She focuses her research on false memories, asserting that “when you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort or contaminate or change their memory.”  She explains that “our memories are constructive.  They’re reconstructive.  Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page.  You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.”  Loftus contends that confidence, emotion, and detail do not necessarily guarantee the accuracy of memories.

In the 1970s, psychologists advanced a “flashbulb memory” theory that suggested traumatic events produce more detailed memories.  This encouraged the “where were you when” phenomenon that we witnessed again this week, with countless re-tellings of what occurred on November 22, 1963.  But in a 2003 study at Duke, the findings demonstrated that there is no greater accuracy in our memories of traumatic events — just a greater perceived accuracy.  This study was conducted in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and the conclusion was that people had discussed the events so frequently in the intervening months and relived the events in TV footage to the end that they felt more secure about their memories.

This reminds me of the polls that have been conducted on the U.S. war in Iraq.  A 2003 study found three common misperceptions among Americans:

  1. U.S. forces found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  2. Saddam Hussein worked closely with the September 11th terrorists.
  3. People in other countries generally supported or were evenly split about the U.S.-led war.

But rather than gaining clarity with time, a 2006 survey indicated that the percentage of Americans believing we found WMDs in Iraq had actually increased.  So I have to ask myself what factors — other than truth — are shaping people’s memories.  How and why do we fill in the details in our memories?

Obviously, Lincoln lived in an era lacking in 24-hour news cycles and the blogosphere.  Yet he still faced criticism, with his Gettysburg Address being widely panned at the time.  One such newspaper, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, recently issued a retraction of its critique of Lincoln’s remarks, which at the time they called “silly.”  With this event, hindsight provides an understanding of the impact and import of Lincoln’s speech, so it seems to me that this paper is merely trying to get on the right side of history.

So then why haven’t our “memories” of 21st century events also improved with the clarity of hindsight — but instead get more inaccurate as time goes on?  If this is the result of all the improvements in the speed and reach of communications technologies, it does not bode well for the future of our memories.

If you’re interested in learning more about Kennedy’s assassination, the JFK Presidential Library has digitized many relevant records.  The records of the investigation by the Dallas police are also available online.  And if you’d like to read the various versions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, they’ve also been put online.

(NOTE: the title of today’s post comes from the title song from The Way We Were, written by Marvin Hamlisch and Marilyn and Alan Bergman and preformed by Barbra Streisand.  For a tangentially-related look at how lyrics are often misheard — and then misremembered — you can read this article from the New York Daily News.)

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Is it real or is it Memorex?

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The 1980s ad slogan suggested that the quality of recording tape being produced by Memorex could make it hard to distinguish between a live performance and a recording.  While such an aspiration for quality is admirable, for those of us interested in the issue of authenticity, not being able to distinguish the real from the copy can be disconcerting.  Museums have to be wary about forgeries, and archives are careful to trace provenance in order to insure that records are authentic.  With the advent of the photocopier, it became simple to make a replica of a document; the facsimile also incorporates into its name an indication that a fax is a copy of a document.  With these analog producers of copies, it was fairly easy to determine which version was the original and which were copies.  With born-digital materials, authenticity is much more complicated to parse.  There are simple technical solutions like checksums that can guarantee that the file I have today is the same one as the file I received from a  donor two years ago.  But from a records retention standpoint, the ease with which exact digital copies of files can be generated — and attached to an email or copied onto flash drives or stored in the cloud — makes it quite complicated to determine which version of a file should serve as the record copy.

The development of affordable 3D printing may not have much direct impact on archives, which do not tend to collect as many three-dimensional objects, but it is sure to change the landscape for museums.  Rather than fearing the possibility of counterfeit items being produced, the Smithsonian Institution has chosen to embrace this new technology as a form of outreach.  As reported in an Associated Press article this week, the Smithsonian is embarking on an initiative to scan objects from its collections — thus far including items such as the Wright brothers’ first airplane and casts of president Abraham Lincoln’s face during the Civil War.  These scans can be viewed online through the Smithsonian’s 3D viewer, where objects can be browsed individually or viewed in designed tours.  Files can also be downloaded to create replicas of these objects on a 3D printer.  The Smithsonian provides these downloadable files as an outreach effort and trusts that the public will use them for educational purposes rather than more nefarious ones.  It will be interesting to see whether our collective better angels hold more sway, and it will also be intriguing to see whether 3D imaging becomes as ubiquitous as document scanning or whether the drive to provide 3D representations creates a divide between the institutions with the financial and technical wherewithal to embark on a 3D imaging program and those without.

Veterans Day

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At eleven o’clock in the morning on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice went into effect to cease the fighting of the Great War.  Armistice Day was first celebrated in 1919 and became a national holiday in 1938 to celebrate this anniversary; it wasn’t until 1954 that we began to celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th.

In honor of the day, I’ve investigated various repositories that handle the records of veterans of wars.  Here’s what I found:

  • American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress: Veterans History Project (http://www.loc.gov/vets/vets-home.html).  This collection includes records from World War I through the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It includes primarily oral histories of veterans, but it also incorporates diaries, letters, and other historical documents that have been contributed.  Some of the materials are in a digital format and available online.
  • Department of Veterans Affairs: National Cemetery Administration (http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/).  This Nationwide Gravesite Locator is an online searchable database of the burial sites of veterans.
  • National Archives and Records Administration: Veterans Service Records (http://www.archives.gov/veterans/).  This portal provides information on how to request military service records, how to research using military records, how to replace lost medals and awards, and links to a selection of World War Two photographs that have been digitized and placed online.  Unfortunately, NARA’s military records were housed in a St. Louis facility that suffered a devastating fire in 1973, but as they receive requests, they are still trying to reconstruct these records.
  • National Park Service: Soldiers and Sailors Database (http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm).  This site provides online access to regiment lists for both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.  The site also includes histories of these regiments, links to descriptions of significant battles, and some prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records.
  • National World War II Museum (http://www.nationalww2museum.org/index.html).  This museum, founded by Stephen Ambrose, contains more than 100,000 artifacts.  The Focus On, Featured Artifacts, and Oral Histories collections provide access to a number of these artifacts online.
  • Pennsylvania State Archives: Spanish American War Veterans’ Card File of United States Volunteers Indexes (http://www.digitalarchives.state.pa.us/archive.asp?view=ArchiveIndexes&ArchiveID=8).  The Pennsylvania State Archives has digitized an abstract card file for Pennsylvania veterans of the Revolutionary War, Spanish-American War, and World War I and makes this available online.
  • University of Hawai’i at Manoa: Japanese American Veterans Collection (http://libweb.hawaii.edu/libdept/archives/mss/aja/).  This collection documents the service of Japanese Americans in the 100th Infantry Battalion, the Hawaii Territorial Guard, the Varsity Victory Volunteers, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the 1399th Engineers, and the Military Intelligence Service during World War Two.
  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro: The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project (http://library.uncg.edu/dp/wv/).  This collection includes both records created by individual female veterans along with print and textile items collected by the University Archives.
  • A 2011 article (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Civil-War-Veterans-Come-Alive-in-Audio-and-Video-Recordings.html) in the Smithsonian references the videos that are in the Library of Congress collection that show Civil War veterans.

If you’re interested in getting involved preserving the records of veterans, the American Library Association has produced helpful Quick Preservation Tips for Military Families (http://atyourlibrary.org/sites/default/files/presweek/Quick-Preservation-Tips-for-Military-Families-13.pdf).

Memory keepers or witnesses to memory?

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I was a history major, a teacher, and now I have a degree in archives management, so I come by my interest in memory from many directions.  Which is to say, this is likely not the last time that I will write about memory.

In 1990, Elie Wiesel published a volume entitled From the Kingdom of Memory — collected speeches and essays that epitomize his writings after his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps of World War Two.  He concluded the preface to this volume of reminiscences with this analysis: “memory is a blessing: it creates bonds rather than destroys them.  Bonds between present and past, between individuals and groups.  It is because I remember our common beginning that I move closer to my fellow human beings.  It is because I refuse to forget that their future is as important as my own.  What would the future of man be if it were devoid of memory?” (From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences [New York, Summit Books, 1990], 10).  This attempt to connect memory and the future reminds me of the 2006 presidential address that Richard Pearce-Moses delivered to the Society of American Archivists.  He applied a similar logic to the work of archivists, suggesting that “Janus, the Roman god who looks forward and backward, may be the perfect patron of archivists” (“Janus in Cyberspace: Archives on the Threshold of the Digital Era,” The American Archivist 70 [Spring/Summer 2007]: 13).

In an essay entitled “Why I Write,” Elie Wiesel provided a glimpse into what has guided his work, explaining, “I never intended to be a novelist.  The only role I sought was that of witness.  I believed that, having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life.  I knew the story had to be told.  Not to transmit an experience is to betray it; this is what Jewish tradition teaches us” (From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences, 14).  Wiesel went on to elaborate on his motivations: “The fear of forgetting: the main obsession of all those who have passed through the universe of the damned.  The enemy relied on people’s disbelief and forgetfulness.  Remember, said the father to his son, and the son to his friend: gather the names, the faces, the tears.  If, by a miracle, you come out of it alive, try to reveal everything, omitting nothing, forgetting nothing.  Such was the oath we had all taken: ‘If, by some miracle, I survive, I will devote my life to testifying on behalf of all those whose shadows will be bound to mine forever’” (15).

I have no doubt that archivists are shaped by the fear of forgetting, and some also hear the voice of Wiesel imploring us not only to save the materials but to share the experiences.  In his presidential address to the Society of American Archivists in 2009, Frank Boles reflected on the purpose of archives and the materials held within them, suggesting: “It is a past we explore not because we need it for some immediate, practical reason, but rather because we require it for a broader, more meaningful purpose.  It explains who we are.  It explains why we are.  It opens a window to our individual and collective souls.  Archives are, and will remain, that place where, above everything else, the souls of a person and of a community are both preserved and laid bare.  Insofar as any human can find truth, truth is in our holdings.  Insofar as any human can find immortality, immortality is in our stacks. Because of this fundamental essence of humanity that resides within our repositories, those of us who work in archives are both privileged and significant.  We are the selectors and the keepers of individual and collective memory.  What archivists remember will be remembered.  What archivists forget will be forgotten” (“But a Thin Veil of Paper,” The American Archivist 73 [Spring/Summer 2010]: 20-21).

Boles concluded, “We cause to be remembered triumph and tragedy.  We give voice to those who can no longer speak.  We preserve memories for those who can no longer remember.  Archivists weave a veil of paper, through which, however dimly, the present can see the past and the living can hear the dead.  We archivists are the stewards of humanity’s legacy” (24-25).  But while Boles lauds the purpose and impact of archives, I would take it one step farther and argue that archives should embrace Wiesel’s vision and be witnesses to memory, not merely keepers of memories.

I love music and have sung in choirs for most of my life, so I tend to have a soundtrack running in my head of songs that fit the occasion.  In this case, I keep hearing the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.”  One verse in particular seems to fit this situation: “Hide it under a bushel Oh no!/I’m going to let it shine.”  While I’m not suggesting archives need to adopt a religion-infused mission, I do wholeheartedly believe that the focus has to be on providing access to the records that are housed in our repositories.  Obviously donor agreements that require a denial of access may trump any broader goals by archivists, but apart from those exceptions, we need to let our light shine.  Preservation is a critical step in the process, but we can’t be content to let it be the only step.  Whether it’s through exhibits or online digital surrogates or through good old-fashioned outreach to new users, we need to build bonds using the memories housed in our repositories.  (See the aforementioned Pearce-Moses speech for more insights into how archivists can be pioneers in the field of digital records.)  In doing so, we can live up to Boles’ notion that our work is “both privileged and significant.”