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.”

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