Memory and Archives

For a number of years, I have used evidence, memory, and accountability as the major components of why archives and archival work are important in our society. More recently, I added social justice and community to these. My own writings about the connection between memory and archives extend back a quarter-of-a-century.

Public or collective memory has been a major feature of historical and other scholarship for quite some time. More recently, however, there have been countervailing perspectives to this, such as studies suggesting that forgetting ought to be given its due. A recent addition to this literature is David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Drawing on a wide range of historical, scholarly, and literary sources, Rieff provides a cautionary tale for why archivists and their supporters should be careful about how they associate memory with the archival mission. For example, “Whatever its purpose, the authority of collective memory depends . . . on our not inquiring too insistently about it factuality and not worrying overmuch about its contingency, but instead allowing ourselves to be swept away by a strong emotion dressed up in the motley of historical fact. Typologically, it matters little whether the feeling in question is one of solidarity, of mourning, of love of one’s own nation or disenchantment with it, or of hatred for another’s nation or envy of it” (pp. 35-36). Archival sources provide the authority of interpreting the past, no matter how we use memory as part of valuing the archival mission in society.

Archives are for the long-term. Rieff writes, “Commemorations are not generally valued for their ability to shed light on the truth” (p. 129). And while archives and the users of archives have debated the role of truth in their work and in the nature of the record, rightly so, ultimately they are the substance that gets us closer to comprehending the veracity of past events. Consider this, for example, as a way of wrestling with this: “Commemorations of national tragedies such as the September 11 attacks are also occasions for the affirmation of the wholly illogical belief that events that quite rightly seem essential to us today will be as or almost as important to our descendants long after those of who lived through them are dead” (p. 130).

This is a thought-provoking book. If nothing else, it makes me wonder just how long archivists will be remembered for the work they have done. As we build our repositories and their holdings we work against the vagaries of memory and our own oblivion.

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