Cheney and the archive.

Confirming to a degree, or at least highlighting my thoughts from earlier this weekend that archives are focal points and physical storehouses of a culture and its memory is the recent CBC news article reporting that a US Federal court has ordered Dick Cheney to preserve records from his time serving in the office of the vice-president of the United States.  Although certain questions arise regarding the levels of privacy within a public office (i.e. is every scrap of paper ever written on in the office part of the public record?  what is its public value?  how does it affect the nation’s interests and security?), we find in the news-piece a common opinion that archives exist to safeguard records.    The fact that the plaintiffs, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has demanded that Cheney’s personal papers be preserved for the public record betrays the significance of the archive’s ability to create remembrances from its records.  CREW understands that we remember, discuss, write, and publish on that which is in the archive; demanding that a wide range of Cheney’s papers be included in the public record can potentially affect the manner in which future societies will reconstruct Cheney’s actions as VP.

This is nothing new, of course.  We turn to archives for historical, social and cultural context – that is the very reason why archives exist.  The recent push toward digitization, however, a push toward a new and all-encompassing storage method and format, asks us to reevaluate our points of access and to reconsider their meaning.  Digitization can bring Cheney’s papers to so many more people, but only if the people has access to the proper technology.  One doesn’t need a post office or a library card to access our cultural memory anymore.  Now, one needs the latest software and newest technological platform to transfer and decode the remembrance..

Memory Banks. Or: Why I’m Here

I’ve been revising and editing this post for several days now.  It has shifted back and forth from its original faux-flowery-rhetoric to become a “mission statement”, but has more or less developed into a middle-of-the-road affirmation of sorts.  On the one hand, one could say it declares to the world what I’m interested in and why ‘m interested in it.  On the other, it might be a sideways declaration to myself that interests such as these are in fact interesting and thought-provoking in their own right.

I’ve been interested in the plastic, unreliable nature of memory for several years now.  Our ability to think, remember, and forget has always been a bit of a secondary curiosity throughout my academic career, but it began to hog the limelight in the last year of my BA when I was researching in one course early modern conceptions of memory and mnemonic devices, and in another course the unreliable, ahistorical, and permeable nature of memory – as evidenced in so much post-modern and sci-fi literature.  Memory and the post-modern condition became my little pet projects for a good eighteen months or so, since these themes carried over into term papers I wrote when I began my MA.  To a certain degree, they both remain threads that tie my thoughts together (or loosen them).

Somewhere along the way, I became intrigued with the concept of the mind as a mental storehouse.  There is a nice little metaphor of this in the second book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where Guyon, the hero, makes his way with Arthur through a castle which is an allegorical structure of the mind and body.  Guyon eventually encounters three wise old sages, who together the parts of the mind – foresight, advice and memory.  Memory sits in a room full of manuscripts, texts, scrolls and rolls, constantly recording that which the parts of the body encounter (or something to that effect).  Within an elegant twist of time, Spenser has Memory shift to a future-past tense in order recount the future-history of Arthur, Guyon, and Britain to the heroes and to the reader.  Beyond these particular details, however, lie Spenser’s important characterization of memory as a room full to the brim of records and books waiting to be accessed.  And these texts are a record not only of the person, but of the entire nation.

Independent of my time in “Faeryland”, I began to look upon the libraries I walked in and researched in for so long as similar physical storehouses of cultural and literary memory.  The books we look for in the stacks of our libraries are simple remembrances to be reconsidered whenever our society looks to recall that knowledge.  The setting of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient reinforced this idea with a poetic polish and rhetorical flourish I could only dream of: the text, we recall, is set predominantly in the bombed shell of a house.  Its characters read the books in the house’s library, take on the characteristics of these characters, and even rebuild the house from the books themselves.  Important to the plot is the Patient’s own journal, a palimpsest of excerpts, pages, notes and remembrances from other books and from his own travails.  Ondaatje created characters and settings that are archives of other people and of other settings; reading his text was akin to adding kindle to the idea in my own mind of people and places as their own sites of memory.

So it is then that I find myself espousing the metaphor of the archive as our storehouse of thoughts and remembrances.  Although  this archive-as-memory concept wasn’t my main motivation to enroll in an MLIS programme, and I understand that the courses I will eventually take in Archiving will likely be more practical in nature, I’m allowing myself to hold onto this metaphor because it keeps in mind many of the larger cultural and theoretical issues that drive my person.  The profound changes in librarianship and in the physical design of libraries in the past twenty years demand that we reconsider the notion of the archive as the site of cultural memory.  On the one hand, open libraries are making access to this memory easier and more accessible; on the other, the digitization of so much information is potentially filling our minds with too much knowledge (some of it potentially misleading) to sift through.  These are only two considerations within in a host of others, of course.  As public spaces, archives and libraries are in many ways contested sites of power, authority and legitimacy.  What is entered into the archive, by which mandate and under which funding agreement, for instance, can severely affect that which we choose, or even persuaded to remember.

I’m not going to speak exclusively to these concerns in this blog, and I’m certainly not going to limit myself to archiving and memory.  But I think that for at least the next little while, until I reconcile some of the arguments being teased out in my own mind or until I move on to another interesting subject, that these issues will often be brought to the fore on this particular site.  (We’ll see..)