Archives and Memory

February 03, 2020

The term archives has many meanings; it encompasses a complex array of institutional, political, social, and cultural aspects. Archivists think about archival materials in terms of what they acquire, arrange, describe, preserve, and make accessible, but many think in more abstract ways.

The topics of history and cultural memory reflect the fundamental questions of archival identity: who archivists are and what they do. Archivists often use the metaphors of culture and memory to make the profession more understandable to others.

Memory Defined

All documents arise from the act of memorializing something—be it recording or sharing information—and the fact that people create and retain records.

Memory may be described in three ways:

  • A place where information is stored or from which ideas are recalled. Memories can be retrieved, reshaped by others, and distributed.
  • A thing or object that can be measured or managed.
  • An activity akin to a technology, machine, or performance that fixes items for later recall. As such, memory is a construction and a work in progress.

All three categories reflect the multifaceted definition of archives as a repository, as its holdings of the repository, and as the work archivists do. The usefulness of memory recalled by archives is shaped by both the quality of the documents as credible evidence, and the transparency of the context in which people create them.

Archivists also emphasize the importance of authenticity. Without quality and openness, archival collections lack a foundation on which to build. The assumption is that history is a pursuit of the truth so that history is written to memorialize that truth.

When archives develop collecting policies and appraise potential additions to their holdings, they’re assessing the quality of documents as evidence. When archivists arrange and describe collections, they increasingly aim at transparency, recognizing the stamp archivists inevitably put on collections.

Cultural Memory

Memory is complex and exists on several levels. It can be personal: who we are and what shapes us. It can be at the group level, that is, shared experiences that shape communities and the members of those communities. Culture also shapes memory. Memory fades if it’s not supported by something that preserves it.

As humans, we often look to things as representations of something else. For example, finding aids are commonly referred to as “archival representations” as they constitute surrogates for the collections.

These collections are themselves representations of the people, places, and events they document. In that respect, they have symbolic significance beyond research value.

The Impact of Technology

The impact of technology on history and cultural memory is still being investigated. Think, for instance, about how we view information through machine interfaces. On a technical level, the interface is the translation of the computer’s binary code to text and symbols that people understand. On a human level, the interface is how the archives presents the information and provides access to users. If users are approaching archives primarily or initially through websites, the interface becomes the intermediary between the user and the archives. Archivists may contextualize documents in the finding aid, but the way those finding aids are presented on the website has a consequence for the user’s sense-making.

The Myth of Objectivity

Archival records hold just a sliver of the documentary record and cultural memory. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” In the context of appraisal and acquisition, archivists make decisions about what to save. Accountability and transparency come into play during these decisions.

Archives are powerful institutions that control the past and have a myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity, and thus have power over memory and identity—and history.

<a href="https://lucidea.com/author/margot_note/" target="_self">Margot Note</a>

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s book under the Lucidea Press imprint, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success

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