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Chapter 4 January 27, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 4.

I am supposed to be kicking this discussion off to talk about how issues of power are presented and discussed in Chapters 3 and 4, but perhaps as many of you were, I am more interested in discussing the concepts related to Memory that Jimerson brings up in Chapter 4. So, forgive my digression.

There is, as always, much to discuss. You can pick virtually any paragraph (or even sentence) and that could lead to a discussion on its own. Upon reflection, there are two issues that stuck with me. The first is the way Jimerson deploys the concept of memory in this chapter. Perhaps like some of you, I had a class in graduate school about archives and memory, so I’m sure my reaction to this chapter was shaped by that. Memory is a nebulous concept, and here Jimerson expands and abstracts the concept to present four different types of memory—personal, social, historical, and archival. Perhaps because of the framework I am already bringing with me, I found this approach less useful than discussing the relationships between the distinct entities of history, archives, social or collective memory, and personal memory. What did you think of Jimerson’s presentation of historical and archival memory?

My second issue is one that has been raised previously in the comments, but it reverberated as I was reading the second half of Chapter 4.  Archivists work within institutions, each of which has a mission and collecting policy (at least it should!). Archivists serve the needs of the institution which employs them. While I agree with Jimerson’s concluding call for archivists to expand their collections to include materials relating to traditionally underrepresented people, I think this discussion would have been more useful if it had acknowledged and addressed the conflicts that arise when one attempts to do so in a setting where that is not a primary objective of one’s employer. While I agree that one of the audiences archives serve is the future, our actions in the present are very much governed by the present concerns of our employers and other stakeholders. Perhaps this will be addressed in later chapters (perhaps even in the very next one), but it is difficult for me to read calls for action in the abstract without thinking of the practical implications in the institutional settings with which I’m familiar.



1. Lincoln Cushing - January 27, 2010

Thanks, Kate. This chapter certainly has a lot for us to discuss. I’ll start with the two issues you raised. As for the first, about memory, I thoroughly agreed with the author’s statement that “Memory construction is a political act” (p. 220). All of us need to question our biases and think critically, especially when it concerns dominant narratives. I’d posted a comment in the “resources” section regarding the “conventional wisdom” about travesties during China’s Cultural Revolution, which Jimerson echoes on pages 220 and 227. It’s one example of how the documentation of history’s multiple truths benefits from as neutral and broadly-cast an archival acquisitions policy as possible.

As for your second point, yes, this is one of the areas where the rubber hits the road. There are many ways in which politics manifests itself in institutions. One is which items to highlight, often based on which constituency is seen as most important. We all know that Mark Twain was an activist against U.S. imperialism late in his life, but one would never know that part of him by reviewing the archives of a certain significant repository. Promoting such history might discourage major donors, after all. And special collections that address the history of working people in this country are seen as divisive and partisan, despite the overwhelming resources devoted to business schools. Archivists in such setting need tread carefully, or risk reprisal. I know this from personal experience.

I’d add another relevant subject in this chapter, the role of archivists in adding value to collections (p. 219, 233). I’m very proud of the work I do that goes into original cataloging, and believe that it adds considerably to the understanding of the documents and their context. It’s much more than simple tagging to help scholars find things, yet it’s a role in the production of scholarship that gets very little respect from academics. One more example of the long way this profession has to go before we achieve “archivist power.”

2. terryx - January 27, 2010

A quick chime in on the second point. I also questioned the heavy focus of RJ and Eric Ketelaar on the importance of the future. I mean, it is importatn – especially in appraisal — but I would agree with Kate that the present is what really matters most. We’re here to hook real people up with what has already been preserved. I suppose that if by the future, we mean the next 50 years (our children and grandchildren maybe) then yeah. But I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that we really know what researchers in 2525 are going to want. Those archivists will do exactly what we do – help their researchers with what they have at hand as best they can. In some ways promoting the diversity of sources and encouraging people/groups to preserve what they find dear to their heart keeps stuff around long enough for its value (or lack thereof) to future researchers becomes more obvious.

3. Alison Stankrauff - January 28, 2010

I think what really struck me with this chapter – and rung in my ears – was the intersection of memory with the power that lies in archival records.
On page 213:
“Archival documents do not constitute history, nor do they constitute memory. By conveying markers for past events, however, they make it possible for contemporary and future historians – for all people, for all purposes – to access, use, and interpret information about previous times.”
It lies upon the archivist to select, preserve, and make accessible records that are trustworthy and can be assured to serve as verifiable sources.

4. Noah Lenstra - January 29, 2010

I wanted to respond to Kate’s point that “While I agree that one of the audiences archives serve is the future, our actions in the present are very much governed by the present concerns of our employers and other stakeholders.”

I wonder if R.J. may be advocating for a more holistic, Canadian-type total archives approach in his advocacy in this chapter (one in which archivists work together to document society rather than slavishly focusing only on their one “shop”)? Now I by no means claim to be an expert in “total archives” theory, but I think the idea is that it un-moors the archivist a little from his or her institutional/organizational base and instead asks the archivist to consider the documentation of all society – which may or may not be organized along organizational/hierarchical axi. This whole topic has got me thinking about the relationship between total archives in Canada and documentation theory in the U.S. – are there parallels? After reading Chapter 4 I think that there might be…

Perhaps the organizational culture of archivists (focused too closely on our institutions, or as Ericson would say, on our “own gardens”) keeps us from considering the memory/historical needs of the whole society:

5. Joshua Zimmerman - January 29, 2010

Unlike Terry and Kate, I didn’t have trouble with RJ’s forward-focused abstract call to action. Too much future gazing poses a real problem (head in the clouds) just as much as being drowned by concerns in the present (head in the sand). There’s a real value to stepping back from day to day duties and thinking about issues that RJ brings up about the future. That being said, I think Terry is right about the primary importance of connecting people and material in the present. As a profession, however, we also want to ensure that future researchers have the fullest documentary universe from which to choose.

Seeing the gaps in source material from past eras makes me extremely wary about not looking to the future. Like it or not, archivists will be judged by future generations for the records we keep or don’t keep.

Hoping my next leap will be the leap home….

Jim Gerencser - January 30, 2010

Interesting comment about being judged by future generations. The very suggestion implies that folks in the future will know who archivists are and what they do, and that they will assume that archivists did have the power, that they could choose, and that they were responsible for what happens to the documentary record. That’s a nice thought.

Will the materials that future generations want be available to them? And if not, will archivists receive the blame? I do hope that we’ll be successful more often than not in preserving what the future most wants and needs, but when we are less successful, I also hope that we’re not so invisible that we don’t even get the blame.

6. terryx - February 1, 2010

“Today, the last living survivors of the Holocaust are disappearing one by one. Soon, history will speak about Auschwitz with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists at best, and at worst in the malevolent register of revisionists and falsifiers who call the Nazi Final Solution a myth. This process has already begun.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/opinion/29pisar.html

I reposted this article on Facebook but it seems relevant to this discussion. The chapter related to memory is a tough one to get a handle on. It is hard enough to understand how memory works in the individual mind; much less so to get at what is happening in some sort of corporate sense.

The more I look at it and read RJ’s chapter, the more I believe the most productive system is a sort of check and balance system between human memory and records. As we archivists readily admit, we are just preserving the stuff – not vouching for its accuracy. But that only works well if the records are available for fact-checking by people with actual knowledge of the events. Orwell mentioned this in the earlier chapter on the Spanish Civil War and his direct knowledge that events were incorrectly recorded in official sources. Throw in the appraisal issues (who hasn’t had a researcher that “knows what happened and surely there must be a record of it”) and the reliability of recorded memory starts to look a little sketchy.

There’s got to be a better method for putting these two perspectives together to get a better “sense of what happened” from one generation to the next.

7. Lincoln Cushing - February 1, 2010

Some good points coming up here.

Several people, including RJ, raise the issue of “trustworthy” as an archival goal. Aside from some element of verifiable provenance, this surely can’t mean “truthful.” Many documents contain errors, partisan perspectives, and bold-faced lies. But a clever and perceptive scholar can use such documents, because all of these elements – memory, records, knowledge, etc. – are part of the complicated and often contradictory social construct we call history.

As for archivists taking the blame or credit for the documented record, I don’t worry about that too much. For one thing, we’re too far down the food chain to be responsible for the real damage. We generally don’t have significant influence in institutional collection building or deaccessioning. But we can, as archivist-activists, play a role in helping those at the periphery – ordinary citizens, small organizations – to take better care of their “stuff” and guide them to logical long-term repositories.

8. Eric Ketelaar - February 2, 2010

“Derrida thus understands the esential purpose of archives more clearly than those who cosider the archives to be only relics of the past..”(p. 235).

One of the reasons why I admire Jimerson’s book is the way he has woven “post modernism” into his discussion. He (and several of his US colleagues) have gone a long way since the 90s when the mere mentioning of Derrida on the US archivists listserv spurred a flurry of spiteful comments to the innocent European archivist (being me!).

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