Secondary values and unused records

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The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster seems to me a perfect example of secondary value.  The Society of American Archivists Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines it as “the usefulness or significance of records based on purposes other than that for which they were originally created.”  The poster was part of a set of three created by the British government during World War Two to boost morale, but only the first two were ever published.  The third was intended to be released in case of a German invasion of Britain — the fact that I found these images of these posters on a website selling various items with this slogan tells you the real value of this poster has been to shopkeepers and Internet retailers!

Thoughts of government records that were created and never used for their intended purpose led me to find a list compiled by Mental Floss of speeches that were written but never delivered:

  1. the 1969 speech written by William Safire and sent to Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t return from their landing on the moon
  2. the 1944 speech written by Dwight D. Eisenhower in case the D-Day invasion failed
  3. the 1970 speech written by Wamsutta James for Plymouth’s 350th anniversary celebration of the arrival of the Pilgrims (a speech that was rejected by the event organizers for its unvarnished explanations of the difficult relationship of Native Americans with the Pilgrims)
  4. the 1974 speech written by Raymond Price to enable Nixon to go on TV and announce that he was going to fight to keep his job
  5. the November 1963 speech that JFK was intended to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas (but never delivered because he was assassinated)
  6. the 2000 address Anna Quindlen wrote for Villanova’s commencement (but never delivered due to controversy over her views on abortion)
  7. the September 11, 2001, speech National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice intended to deliver at Johns Hopkins University (but the attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania occurred)
  8. the 1983 speech written by Aquino for his return to the Philippines from exile in the U.S. (but never delivered because he was assassinated upon his return)
  9. the October 1962 speech written for JFK that suggested the U.S. would use nuclear weapons if necessary to eradicate the Soviet missile installations in Cuba (an alternative JFK didn’t exercise)
  10. the September 2012 speech written for Romney to undo the damage from his comment that 47% of Americans don’t pay income taxes
  11. the 2008 victory and concession speeches of Sarah Palin
  12. the April 1945 speech by FDR that was intended for a Jefferson Day celebration (but he died the day before its intended broadcast)



“The Site of Memory”

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At the Society of North Carolina Archivists annual meeting this year, I had the pleasure of hearing Holly Smith (the archivist of Spelman College) deliver the keynote address.  She spoke about the importance of documenting underrepresented communities and made several comments worth noting:

  • She quoted the West African proverb, “No one is ever truly dead until they are forgotten.”
  • She acknowledged HBCUs have a challenge to avoid developing a singular narrative of African Americans.
  • She contended that we are all repositories — and sometimes people may choose not to share their stories, so we as archivists must respect that wish and trust them as stewards of that information.

She also referenced the writing of Toni Morrison on the differences between facts and truths, which motivated me to find this article and see what this great novelist had to say.  In 1995, her talk “The Site of Memory” was published in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir.  Morrison compared her work as a modern writer to that of the authors of slave narratives.  While they frequently felt inhibited from revealing their interior lives, Morrison suggested her purpose is “moving that veil aside.”  In order to do so, she needs two things — to trust her own recollections as well as those of others.  Because these interior lives may not always be a part of the record, she sees herself as a literary archaeologist.  By adding a dose of imagination, Morrison creates fictional masterpieces.

Morrison incorporated the words of other well-known authors to delve into the concept of memory:

  • Zora Neale Hurston: “‘Like the dead-seeming cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.'”
  • She looked at how Frederick Douglass, Simone de Beauvoir, and James Baldwin wrote about the death of relatives.  Morrison said of her own ancestors, “these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life.”

Tying together the various pieces she introduced, Morrison contended that “the act of imagination is bound up with memory.”  She compared the imagination of writers to flooding by rivers:

“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.  Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.  It is emotional memory — what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared.”

And to incorporate the point referenced by Holly Smith: Morrison acknowledged, “Fiction, by definition, is distinct from fact.”  But she went on to say that the more important distinction is fact from truth — “facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”  This relates back to her point about being a literary archaeologist, for she takes the image created by “the remains” of someone’s life story and adds her own recollections and imagination to create “a kind of a truth.”  I think ultimately she’s suggesting truth is more nuanced and doesn’t exist without our own personal filters.  In many ways, this is similar to my topic last week and Lee Smith’s evaluation of facts and truths.

Writing memories

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It’s time to get down in writing some of the ideas I’ve had on the back burner for a while, and the first of these relates to a talk I heard Lee Smith give at the National Humanities Center in March.  It was largely a reading from her memoir Dimestore, but she also provided some insights into her thoughts about writing.  In some ways, she found it more challenging to write nonfiction because she found herself stopping to ask, is this true?  But at the same time, she suggested writing is a therapeutic activity because it can fix loved ones in our memory.

Smith drew an interesting distinction between facts and truth.  After many decades of writing fiction along with this more recent nonfiction effort, she decided she can tell “the truth” better with fiction because she can make her story work to fit that truth, where the stories of real life may not quite so neatly add up to the narrative she wishes to communicate.  When she was writing the memoir, she brought her cousins together for a family reunion and realized everyone had different stories from shared events.  She decided that in the context of a memoir, as long as she believed them to be true, she could incorporate her memories into this work of nonfiction.  But she eventually decided she considers herself to be more of a storyteller than a writer.

This term storyteller actually has some interesting connotations.  As Smith pointed out, when she was growing up, if someone was accused of “telling a story,” it had the connotation of telling a lie.  Yet by the age of 9, she had begun her career of writing stories for entertainment — sometimes related to stories she heard at her father’s dimestore or at the courthouse where her grandfather was treasurer or at her grandmother’s house or in her mother’s kitchen.

In 1983, Smith wrote a novel entitled Oral History.  She explained she had worried about the homogenization of American language, so she spent many years recording her family in southwestern Virginia and wrote this novel to try to preserve some of their vernacular.  In a chapter narrated by the character Sally, she includes this commentary about memory:

“A lot of big things happened, is what I’m saying. It’s funny how you don’t remember those, though, how after the passing of so many years what you hold to is what you never thought about at the time, like Pappy out on the porch singing or me and Mama having coffee so early in the morning” (244).

So what are the connections between writing and memory and fact and truth?  Whether or not we ever put pen to paper, I would suggest that the memories in our own lives that we hold dear are those that resonate with the narrative we’ve constructed of our lives — the events and people that come together to make us who we are.  Absent a daily diary, most of us don’t possess the day-by-day memories of every occurrence, but we remember the more formative interactions, both good and bad.  In doing so, perhaps we are reinforcing “the truth” of who we are.