“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.

“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.

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