Institutional Memory

By belantara

In their article, “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” Schwartz and Cook discuss the important impact archives have on social memory and the often overlooked power held by information professionals. They write:

“archives…wield power over the administrative, legal and fiscal accountability of governments, corporations and individuals…[they] wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups and societies.”

Does the fact that an object is in an archive make it more a more valuable object or reliable as a source?  Who decides?  What are the possible futures of the past and how can the past be found? Whose memory gets stored and whose gets lost? Author Alberto Manguel calls libraries “preservers of memory of our society” and as such as libraries and archives play an essential role in deciding the fate of the past and as such have a power that is rarely associated with them by the general public.

To preserve knowledge and history seems to be a human need. Is it related to our biological instinct for survival?  Perhaps we feel that even though our lives are ephemeral, memory of our lives should be everlasting?  NASA’s golden record was launched into space in 1977 with the hope of reaching other living beings or perhaps human descendants. The record contains sounds of nature along with languages and music from around the world.   Undoubtedly however, one record can not capture every aspect of human diversity, indeed, not even a large archive can contain a history or memory of everything.  Who then, will tell the stories that are not told by archives, and who will listen?

As Rodney G.S. Carter points out in the article, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences and Power in Silence:”

“A universal archive, one that preserves the memory of a culture is an impossibility as memory is necessarily an individual thing: there are many memories that often are conflicting and contradictory. Even if archivists are willing to allow multiple voices into the archives, it will never be complete. There is simply no way of capturing the multitude of stories, although archivists must try. ”

Even if archivists and librarians aim to create an all-inclusive archive, decisions about what to collect and what not to collect must be made. Not everything can be kept.  As Schwarz and Cook point out, these decisions heavily impact memory of the past and materials given precious archival space are often used to validate ideas of how things happened or are assigned a higher value than items that are not part of an official archival collection. Yet, as Schwarz and Cook write, “what goes on in the archives remains remarkably unknown.” Schwarz and Cook mainly address the content of libraries and archives, but their mission to raise discussion about the power held by archivists is reminiscent of radical catalogers’ calls to draw attention to and change biases in cataloging practices.  The organization and classifying methods used in public collections adds yet another layer to the complex power relations embedded in archives and libraries.   How do archivists and librarians make decisions and how can these decisions be made more visible to the people who use them?

Perhaps one solution may be to raise public dialogue on these issues and to begin to raise awareness about the curatorial aspects of library and archival work.   It seems that weeding is one of aspect of collection management that draws wide public attention. News articles describe the public’s dismay at seeing large quantities of books and other materials being removed from a library’s collection. Articles from library professionals list up ways libraries can help diffuse upset over weeding and how to talk about the deaccessioning process in a way that is more acceptable to the public. Perhaps these are times when the public’s attention could also be drawn to the complex task librarians and archivists face when trying to create diverse and useful collections. Libraries and archives could create a public forum to openly discuss these issues and gather input from community members about the stories they want their libraries and archives to tell.

Another strategy that could be useful would be to offer small public tours of behind the scenes archival and library spaces. Such tours could help shed some light on important issues regarding collection development and cataloging practices. People can see what goes into making all the resources available to them. People often have a greater appreciation for work once they have a better idea of what goes into it. People attending the tour can respond to some of the practices they see.  This type of activity can help libraries and archives make their activities more transparent and open to public input.

Another way to increase public involvement in and awareness of important library/archival issues is through art.  Art has the capacity to reach wide audiences and inspire them to see and hear things they encounter everyday in a new way. A number of interesting artworks that explore human interaction with library and archival systems have been on exhibition around New York in recent years, and some of them have been successful in generating much needed public dialogue about some of the issues Schwarz and Cook raise.  Interactive artworks, such as an audiovisual artwork called Kinokologue invite audiences to participate in cataloging tasks encourage them to engage with collections in a new and playful way.

One other interesting option may be to use beacon technology to help tell alternative narratives about the collections. Beacons are small transmitters that can be placed almost anywhere to send out information to smart devices within a certain range.   Perhaps users could learn about the b-side of library collections, such as the story of where a particular item came from or why it was chosen to be part of a collection. Or maybe the beacons could be used to indicate what’s missing from a collection and invite input on this from patrons.

While each of these solutions may not be possible in every context, they do offer ways of increasing public awareness about the important yet often invisible power issues Schwarz and Cook raise. When people have the opportunity to gain insight into how collections are produced and maintained and the decisions librarians and archivists are faced with, they may begin to see these places as less neutral objective spaces and recognize them for the socio-cultural-historic constructed places that they are. While libraries, archives and museums are sometimes known as memory institutions, perhaps such activities may help people realize that these institutional memories, just like each of ours are inherently biased, faulty and incomplete.  Every object and every memory changes with time and context.  What does not change is the human desire to preserve memories as best as possible with the hope that future generations can learn from and find something of themselves within them.

Works Cited:

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

CARTER, Rodney G.S.. Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence. Archivaria, [S.l.], sep. 2006.

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