Archives and memory

This was going to be a bulleted list of questions I have about archives, ten weeks into an archives-heavy semester – like: Holy shit, what do I need to know, technically, do this? and Why don’t I still know the difference between provenance and original order? and, and – but for now, I think, I have two questions. Both about memory.

We talk a lot about memories and identity, and rightfully so. For class this week we read pieces on community archives, and tomorrow – I assume – we’ll discuss the importance of giving everyone a voice, of allowing everyone to be part of our collective memory. Memory isn’t – and shouldn’t – be a right held by the powerful and now, more than ever, we – we! the average citizens! all of us! – have the ability to share our stories.

About a month ago, in Madison, Tony Robinson – a black, young male – lost his life at the hands of a police officer. The response from the community was swift and overwhelming: protests were held, mostly by young Madisonians. It was an incredible demonstration of strength and community and sadness. And hope. Pictures were everywhere. Facebook events were everywhere. This was all playing out right in front of our eyes – completely accessible and totally open. And I kept thinking, while watching it all unfold: who’s documenting this? And: do these kids – these outstanding kids – realize the magnitude and the strength of their actions? And: what are we doing to assure that five years from now, ten years from now, fifty years from now, we can point to this movement and say: Here, look.

But then: is that my place? (I don’t think so.)

I keep coming back to this idea of the Right to Be Forgotten – discussed here in a really good New Yorker article – which is not exactly what’s going on here, in Madison, but it raises a good point: we’re throwing things into the world – good things, bad things – and they’re sticking. And I know, somehow, what happened in Madison was documented. (At the very least, the outrage and the despair was captured on Twitter, and that will be saved. But.) What if there are moments of triumph that aren’t meant to be preserved? What if these kids don’t want to be remembered? What if I – what if you, what if the head of the Wisconsin Historical Society – am not the person who should be making these decisions? (I’m not.) I think this has been explored – probably a hundred times over – within cultures: rituals, performances, languages – there are things meant for a certain few, things not meant to live on – but they do. And I can hear – and I can empathize with – those who argue for the greater good: this is about preservation for the future, for researchers, for humanity. But does – and should – the greater good overpower the voice of the quote unquote record creator? I’m sure it’s something professionals grapple with over and over again. When I worked at the University Archives, I went to scan a photograph and noticed, on the back, that the subject of the photograph had written: Please do not use this picture, I don’t like it. I scanned it anyway, at the request of my boss. I was, in a very real sense, going against the wishes of the record creator. Now, is a headshot as important as an entire culture? Absolutely not. But I think the point stands, and I think it forces us to think about responsibility: who am I, as an archivist? Who am I, as a community member? Do my desires outweigh the desires of another? What if someone – anyone – wants to be forgotten? Who gets to decide what we forget, and let die?

And, switching gears a little, now:

Have there been studies done – or personal essays written – about individual memory in archives? (Yes, there have, I know, but hear me out.) To make sense of this:

I had a bad, and very public childhood. A bad, and very public childhood, that I remember shockingly little about. I see a therapist for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – I do! – and we talk a lot about repressed memories. I don’t understand them, and I don’t understand how I can live – how I can be a living, breathing human – with no recollection of very basic things that happened to me. I remember new things often, now that I exist in a stable environment, and it feels a little like betrayal: I’ll be on the bus, and a stranger will sit down next to me, and he’ll smell like something familiar – deodorant, alcohol, anything – and I’ll remember a moment that I lived, but retained no working memory of. Until that very moment. The memories are all manageable, but still shocking. To know there are parts of me – of my own life – that I cannot access is often frustrating, and a little weird. Understatements.

Growing up, my mom was on television. She was recognizable on the street. Everyone’s favorite news personality. A different last name than mine. In everyone’s kitchen, living room, every night. And then every morning. She had very public battles with alcoholism, too. Six, seven, eight arrests. Crashes. Into signs on public highways. Into other vehicles. Public scenes. (I realize, here, that I am telling her story, and this relates entirely to what I’ve written above: she wants to forget, I know, and I am betraying her – but when lives intertwine, what do you do? What can you do? Can you ever isolate a memory?)

We were doing an exercise in class last week, using historical newspaper databases to do research. And I realized something: my past is available to me. We lived in Chicago. The events of my life, for better or worse, were often written about. With some – probably extensive – digging, I can learn something about myself. The same goes for the rest of my life: my father died while jogging. He, too, was in television. There is an obituary I’ve never seen. A death certificate I do not have. A news clip that I did see, announcing his passing. I don’t have a copy of it. (I just remember being brought in from outside, where I was riding my bike, to watch.) Television stations – I know, they must – keep these broadcasts.

Using the archive – The Archive – to learn about your past isn’t new, I know. Everyone knows. I played around with the other day – as a library student we get a free subscription – and I traced my roots back to Krakow and Ukraine. I didn’t know that about myself. I had always been told this version: the one where our family flees to America, changes their name at Ellis Island, and moves to Skokie. But I wanted to know, so I went looking.

But what I’m curious about, I guess, is the intersection here of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Memory, and The Archive. There are exercises one can do to trigger repressed memories. To try and remember what you’ve buried deep. (One of those things is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which helps resolve unresolved trauma.) But, like: can one use The Archive to do the same thing? Can I search through the archives of the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and drag up those long-forgotten, back-page police reports? Would that trigger anything? Would it teach me anything? Would it hurt? Would I heal? This has to have been done before, no? (Another question, and you can answer this one: does this make sense?)

There’s something interesting about forgetting parts of yourself. (It sucks, actually. But it’s interesting.) The opportunity to relearn, though, is something I’ve never thought about until this semester. Archives teach, don’t they? So, why couldn’t I use them for this?

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