“The Messy Business of Remembering: History, Memory, and Archives”

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Mark Greene made a relatively early attempt to relate postmodernism to archival work.  In a 2003-2004 issue of Archival Issues, Greene wrote about “The Messy Business of Remembering; History, Memory, and Archives.”  He explained archivists were somewhat late to the game to begin discussing postmodernism because of the trend away from allying with historians (who’d been considering postmodernism for some time) and more towards information science.

Although this may in fact defeat the purpose of discussing postmodernism, for reference, here’s a definition from PBS:

“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality.  In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality.  For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person.”

Greene contended that postmodernism is relevant to archivists in everything from acquisition choices to the legitimacy of uses of archives.  He used as a springboard for his analysis a 2002 article by an Amherst historian that presented a positivist view of historical research.  Where positivism asserts that “‘history is what trained historians do'” (96), Greene countered:

“Neither truth nor history nor even memory should be the secret of the few.  If we do it right–and as archivists we have something to say about that because it depends in some part on how we solicit, welcome, and assist both historians and genealogists in our reading rooms–everyone can play a part” (97).

So where some contend that historical uses of archival records are more important than those relating to social memory, Greene painted a more inclusive picture of archival use.  He incorporated the analysis of management and business design expert Chauncey Bell about what the job of  an archivist should be:

“‘your job is not about storing and sorting information.  It is about appraising and keeping records of history-making events and the acts spoken by history makers, and doing that in a way that allows you to be effective partners for those history makers in their re-membering of the past'” (99-100).

Greene also looked to the words of psychiatrist W. Walter Menninger for an explanation of history:

“‘history is a record of present beliefs and wishes, not a replica of the past.  Remembering . . . is a reconstruction using bits of past experience to describe a present state'” (100).

Rejecting the notion of archivists merely as gatekeepers, Greene asserted that archivists cannot claim the neutrality of archival records because “Both the creation and the selection of archival material are tainted, if you will, by the values, missions, and even resources of the creators and the archivists” (101).  Not only do individuals and societies create and shape history and memory, but so do archivists.  He also pointed out that the ownership of history, memory, and the records that shape them — both literal and figurative ownership — is a challenge archivists have yet to resolve.  He concluded that dealing with these complications can be solved only with humility and courage.


“Embracing the Power of Archives”


Randall C. Jimerson delivered his presidential address at the 2005 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in New Orleans.  Jimerson began his archival career at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan (1976-1977) and then spent two years as archivist at Yale University (1977-1979).  He was university archivist and director of the Historical Manuscripts and Archives Department of the University of Connecticut Libraries (1979-1994), where he also taught and led the graduate program in History and Archival Management.  Since 1994, Jimerson has been director of the Graduate Program in Archives and Records Management at Western Washington University in Bellingham, also serving as professor of History since 2002.  An expanded version of the address he delivered was published in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of the American Archivist.

Jimerson’s address was a portent of the arguments he developed more fully in his 2009 volume Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He borrowed the metaphors of Eric Ketelaar and analyzed archives as temples, prisons, and restaurants.  Jimerson suggested these representations illustrate the “trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access” (20).

  • In the archival temple, records achieve authority, immortality, and validity.  He cited numerous archival thinkers regarding the active role that appraisal requires.  He acknowledged that appraisal shapes “society’s collective understanding of its past, including what will be forgotten” (25).  Jimerson cautioned against conflating archives with memory but suggested “records of the past provide a corrective for human memory, a surrogate that remains unchanged while memory constantly shifts and refocuses its vision of the past” (26).
  • Control is the foundation of the archival prison.  From the physical control imposed by lockers, closed stacks, and surveillance cameras to the intellectual control created by the arrangement and description of records, archivists regulate access.
  • The archival restaurant is the locus of interpretation and mediation.  Jimerson contended that archivists cannot be fully objective regarding archives — “as archivists we cannot avoid casting our own imprint on these powerful sources of knowledge” (21).

He concluded the arc of these metaphors by saying,

“May our archival temples truly reflect values worthy of veneration and remembrance.  May our archival prisons minimize locks and security and emphasize accountability, preservation, and access.  May our menus be clear and understandable, and our table service efficient, thorough, and helpful” (32).

Jimerson’s challenge to archivists was to “embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of humankind” (24).  He clarified this notion as making “society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just” (28).  In order to accomplish this goal, he asserted that archivists must abandon “our pretense of neutrality” because only through recognizing our impartiality can we “avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally” (28).  He also echoed Ketelaar’s advocacy for transparency in archival selection and access decisions.  Jimerson cautioned against sidestepping the social and cultural responsibilities of archivists while instead focusing myopically on technical issues.

Jimerson asserted that archives carry out a function of social responsibility by documenting and protecting the rights of citizens.  He pointed to the works collected by Richard Cox and David Wallace in Archives and the Public Good for evidence of archival records being used as agents of accountability.  He also echoed the words of Howard Zinn in challenging archivists to “commit themselves to ensuring that our records document the lives and experiences of all groups in society, not just the political, economic, social, and intellectual elite” (30).  Herein lies the power.

“Of Archivists and Other Termites”

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Persistence pays off – I finally found a version of Andrea Hinding’s presidential address from the 1985 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA).  She shared these ideas again at the 1989 annual meeting, and this article was published in the Winter 1993 issue of the American Archivist.

Hinding focused on illuminating the value of archival work.  She cited David Gracy’s work suggesting that “‘the cause of our inability to provide adequate care’ for the nation’s records lies in substantial measure in the lack of general awareness and understanding of them” (55).  She identified two common methods used by archivists to gain support:

  1. improve repositories and holdings
  2. improve archivists through education

Hinding paraphrased Richard Berner to provide a definition of the purpose of archives: “to bring records into professional custody . . . so that they might be used” (55).  Yet she asserted there had been no consensus about the meaning and value of archives.

Returning to the work of Gracy with the SAA Task Force on Archives and Society, Hinding summarized the findings of the Levy Report.  Executives who controlled funding for archives were interviewed, and their responses indicated they had a good appreciation of the work of archives but perceived a lack of understanding on the part of the general public.  Hinding suggested one reason for the lack of understanding and support was due to the tendency of the profession to focus inward, on the records themselves.  In contrast, she challenged archivists to shift focus to the act of keeping records, or “acts of memory” (57).

To support this concept of social or collective memory, Hinding pointed to biologist Lewis Thomas, who posited that humans exhibit collective behavior, especially in the creation of language.  (Should you be interested, she also included a fascinating etymology of the f-bomb.)  Hinding asserted,

“All of our individual acts of memory, from neighborhood reminiscence to oral history, from keeping a family scrapbook to keeping archives, cumulate to a body of human memory that is both physical and nonmaterial” (59).

Hinding also looked to philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who suggested philosophy needed to add a field of inquiry into “ideals, concerns what we care about, what we do with ourselves rather than with others” (59-60).  Ultimately, he concluded that humans confer importance upon things by caring about them.  Hinding connected this to archival work, commenting,

“If acts of memory are a form of caring, and caring is central to us as human, then people who care about antiques and classic cars confer importance on them simply by caring and wanting to remember them” (60).

Hinding acknowledged that people may value artifacts not commonly the focus of archival work – she repeatedly listed cranberry glass, Model A cars, presidential birthplaces, and family scrapbooks.  Hinding suggested the role for archivists is to explain acts of memory to these audiences in such a way that they can put them in a larger context.  In challenging archivists to connect their work with collective behavior, Hinding hoped to see “acts of memory” incorporated into the language as a new term.  The good news for Hinding is that these notions about memory have captured the imagination of many archivists.  She cited several American Archivist articles in her footnotes, and you can find more references in others of my posts.  Some of the luminaries on this subject include Kenneth Foote, Rand Jimerson, Terry Cook, and Verne Harris.

To cursive or not to cursive

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From the halls of state legislatures to the pages of national newspapers, the debate over whether or not children should be taught how to write in cursive has been raging.  Testing organizations, which have routinely required a handwritten oath to attest that no cheating has occurred, are having to consider how to handle test takers who cannot write this paragraph or sign their names in cursive.

It’s not often that you see the states California, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and South Carolina all on the same page, but these are some of the states that are bucking the trend to jettison cursive handwriting from elementary schools.  An article that ran in Time in June lists five reasons that cursive is good for us:

  1. some American institutions (e.g., post office, board of elections) still require signatures
  2. it’s good for our minds — not only for motor skills but also for developing different parts of our brain
  3. in the words of a New Jersey proposal — “So that students are able to read our most valued historical documents in their original form”
  4. some people who have learning disabilities or have suffered brain injuries have an easier time reading cursive than manuscript print
  5. it looks pretty

While some of these reasons may seem more emotional than scientific, psychologists and neuroscientists have also weighed in on this debate, concluding that “children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information.”  This same June article in the New York Times also reported that brain imaging shows that when “children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.”  And in a discovery most troubling to those of us who can type much faster than we can write legibly, there have been studies that show that writing lecture notes by hand rather than typing them “allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.”  According to the studies conducted by Princeton psychological scientists, students typing notes are much more likely to produce verbatim while those writing by hand are more likely to summarize the content, thereby creating these differences in learning and memory.

As someone who taught in a public school for many years, I sympathize with the opinion that too many curriculum decisions are being made by legislators rather than trained educators.  In addition, some of the fascination with cursive may just be an avenue for attacking the Common Core curriculum.  But as an archivist, I have to admit that I like the idea that we won’t lose the next generation as potential patrons just because they can’t read the handwriting in our old documents.  Otherwise, we’re really going to have to ramp up our efforts to crowdsource the transcribing of our precious documents before the volunteer labor pool dwindles to nothing!

Updated stories

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Several of the topics about which I’ve previously written — specifically, “the right to be forgotten” and the IRS email scandal — continue making news.  So here are some updates.

  • Forbes reported this week that Google has received about 100,000 requests over two months from Europeans wishing certain search results to be removed.  It points out two big problems with Google’s application of the court decision: (1) it only removes the link from the “local” version of Google, so the incriminating link can always be found on the US or some other country’s version of the Google search page; and (2) Google has been notifying web site owners of the removal of the links, which then tends to spawn an investigation that brings the story back into the news cycle, which of course defeats the whole purpose of making it harder for people to locate this information.  It’ll be interesting to see how the interpretation and application of this decision morph over time.
  • A records management take that was posted last week on the IRS email scandal acknowledges the complications of capturing federal records produced as email.  It cites Meg Phillips of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as saying, “the scale of electronic records being created requires more individual decisions than users can be reasonably expected to process in a manual way.”  One possible solution is being tested by the Department of the Interior, whose Office of Records Management is working with NARA on automating the process of identifying which emails fit into which of 500 retention categories in the general records schedule.  They’re piloting an auto-classification system that can index records using algorithms and automatically file them.  While this wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the IRS debacle, it does address a growing problem.  The article goes on to suggest that in order to guarantee honesty, the government needs to be tested more often — in terms of being required to produce public records within a given period of time.  The founder of a company that provides archiving platforms for organizations is quoted as saying that the Securities and Exchange Commission regularly requires private companies to produce records within 48 hours, but the same rigor is not applied to government requests.  Perhaps if the IRS had been in the habit of promptly supplying records, they would have recognized their IT problem long before it was irrecoverable.
  • Of course, it’s increasingly looking like those emails are recoverable.  According to the Washington Post, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released testimony Tuesday showing that IRS Deputy Associate Chief Counsel Thomas Kane told congressional investigators that the agency is no longer certain whether it recycled all of the backup tapes containing Lerner’s e-mails.  And perhaps that hard drive was just scratched.  The chairman of the committee said it best: “It is unbelievable that we cannot get a simple, straight answer from the IRS about this hard drive.”  Maybe one of these days we’ll actually get to the bottom of this story.  But don’t count on it happening any time soon.

The shot heard round the world

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One hundred years ago today in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.  Princip was part of an organization called the Black Hand that wanted Serbia to become independent from Austria-Hungary, whose heir to the throne was the Archduke.  Austria-Hungary presented a lengthy ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, 1914; although Serbia conceded to most every demand by Austria-Hungary, it was not enough to satisfy Austria-Hungary, which declared war on Serbia exactly one month after the assassination.  As alliances involving Russia, Germany, France, and Great Britain kicked in, the so-called Great War began.

The media has given much attention to this centennial in recent weeks.  In case you’ve missed it, some examples include this story NPR did on All Things Considered and an article in the New York Times.  The element that I find most interesting from the perspective of archives is the variety of ways in which Princip’s action have been interpreted over time, with some holding him up as a hero and others labeling him as a terrorist.  But rather than worrying about how documents might be interpreted in the future, I think it’s more important for the profession to focus on the records scheduling, arrangement and description, and reference service that provide the invaluable context necessary for patrons to be able to interpret the records for themselves as time unfolds.  Political priorities and cultural sensitivities have a way of changing, and as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, many argue that it’s impossible for archivists to be completely objective.  So it’s vital for there to be some fundamental principles that shape our work, and the Society of American Archivists has done a good job of defining those in its Core Values.  Prioritizing accountability and preservation and service will go a long way toward guaranteeing that necessary records will be available for generations to come.

As a result of his actions in Sarajevo in 1914, Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned at Terezin and died in April 1918 of tuberculosis.  This camp in the current day Czech Republic was used by the Nazis during World War II as a labor camp and a transit camp for European Jews who were sent on to death camps at other locations.


cell at Terezin

Princip’s cell at Terezin

That these dead shall not have died in vain

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“The tragedy of loss is not that we grieve, but that we cease to grieve, and then perhaps the dead are dead at last.”

— poet Gabriel Dauntsey in P.D. James’ Original Sin (1994)

If he had not been so busy as a lawyer and a politician, Abraham Lincoln probably would have been a good archivist.  The Society of American Archivists asserts that “the primary task of the archivist is to establish and maintain control, both physical and intellectual, over records of enduring value.”  The title of today’s post — borrowed from Lincoln — certainly reflects an effort to preserve some purpose from the deaths of so many thousands of soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg (albeit not by preserving records).

These sorts of sensibilities have led me to a career as an archivist and have made me more attuned to actions that threaten history and memory.  The build-up to the 25th anniversary of the protests at Tiananmen Square has been one such example.  The protests in 1989, led by students and other activists who desired a more open society in China, spawned an aggressive silencing on the part of China’s communist party.  The number of people who died as a result of the military response has never been officially corroborated.  A search for “June 4” in the primary Chinese Internet search engine results in a message that says: “According to policies from relevant laws and regulations, part of the search results cannot be displayed.”  William Nee, a researcher for Amnesty International, has characterized the actions of the Chinese government as “an attempt at forced amnesia.”

Gate of Heavenly Peace

Gate of Heavenly Peace

I had the opportunity to travel to China in 1997 and visited Tiananmen Square.  The combination of buildings and monuments that comprise this square is fascinating:

  • Great Hall of the People, where the National People’s Congress meets
  • Mao Zedong Mausoleum, which has housed his remains since his death in 1976
  • Museum of Chinese Revolution/Museum of Chinese History — closed from 1966 to 1978 as Chinese history was being reassessed
  • Gate of Heavenly Peace — built in the 15th century and the place at which Mao announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949
  • and in the center of it all, the Monument of the People’s Heroes, completed in 1958

Our guide, who was of course an employee of the government, explained to us at Tiananmen Square that the workers and peasants didn’t join the students during the “June incident” for several reasons: the country had recently emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution; the Chinese people already had some freedom to criticize; and the Chinese already had a decent standard of living.  Yet his willingness to acknowledge the questionably scant numbers the government claimed to have been killed or arrested during the crackdown made me believe dramatic change in China was coming sooner rather than later.

In his acceptance speech for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo commented, “Even in the political arena, where progress is slowest, the weakening of the ‘enemy mentality’ has led to an ever‑growing tolerance for social pluralism on the part of the regime and substantial decrease in the force of persecution of political dissidents, and the official designation of the 1989 Movement has also been changed from ‘turmoil and riot’ to ‘political disturbance.'”  Despite not being able to deliver this speech in person due to his imprisonment, Liu evidences hope for the future of human rights and freedom in China.  He concludes, “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth.  To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”

Unfortunately, optimism doesn’t equate to change.  An article published by McClatchy new service in early May details various lawyers, activists, and journalists that were being detained because of their efforts to remember the victims of the 1989 crackdown.  An article published by the Associated Press this week recounts the tribulations of family members who have wanted to commemorate the lives of those who died in 1989.

I am hopeful that change is coming.  But in the meantime, for Lincoln’s sake, we must continue to grieve the lost.

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