Tennessee Williams once wrote that, “Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going”. While we live, our own memory is essential to our identity. But sadly, memory fails us. For a person who has tragically lost their memory, it is a loss of self, of one's self in time and place. Fortunately, when one is no longer among the living, he or she continues to exist in the memory of others, in documents such as a letter, or as an image in a photograph. Life itself is intangible but images and documents are the tangible evidence that an individual or an entity actually did exist in a specific place and time and are a record of their activities.
Because memory is fleeting, individuals and groups have always devised ways of preserving memories. Early populations designated story-tellers and keepers of "the record" to keep the history and beliefs of their group alive and present. When they began to chronicle on stone, bark, parchment, vellum and paper, they also developed places to safeguard them. But the ravages of time, war, the elements and neglect can reduce the evidence of their existence to dust.
An archivist is fundamentally a keeper of memories that exist in physical form. We provide a place where the thoughts and deeds of an individual or an organization can reside. But our mission is more extensive than to simply provide storage: As a repository of knowledge, the mission of the Archives is to appraise, acquire, house, preserve, maintain and facilitate access to the evidential and historical records… in traditional and emerging formats. What we do, as archivists, works much like memory itself with the aid of technology: Memory is an organism's ability to store, retain, and subsequently retrieve information. From an information processing perspective there are three main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory: Encoding or registration (processing and combining of received information) Storage (creation of a permanent record of the encoded information) Retrieval or recall (calling back the stored information in response to some cue for use in a process or activity) We archivists acquire and process materials, organizing and describing them, and then store them in an environment to ensure their relative permanence; then we retrieve them for use in research or education. But we must rely on the good sense of the owners of materials to deposit them with the archives or to store them in such a way that they will be preserved.
You as Memory Keeper
My experience as archivist has shown that many potential donors are not aware of the historical significance of what they have stored in their attics, basements and garages. Some are even stunned that we would want, even solicit, their papers, photographs, memoirs, publications, correspondence, scrapbooks and memorabilia.
Historians and genealogists have long understood the importance of primary sources. But if we don't save our family treasures, there will be no evidence from which to write history or memories to pass on to our children. As a result, the responsibility lay perhaps with the archivist to educate people of their responsibility and the joy of storing and maintaining their family treasures.
The Society of American Archivists has developed awareness campaigns to assist archivists in educating Americans of their responsibility to memory: local, regional, state, national and international repositories are not only storage facilities, they bring an awareness to each and every one of us of the part that we play in telling and preserving the history of our lives, of our families, our cities, our country and beyond. Archives month, traditionally held in October, provides a period of time for archivists to collaborate on one of those campaigns. Another is linked to the 1st of May, May Day.
Most people think of May Day as a day to celebrate, once again, the coming of spring, the departing of the cold and dark days of winter. For some, May 1st conjures up visions of children dancing around a maypole in a green field, lush with spring flowers. Or maybe for you it raises socialist and labor movement consciousness. Calling “May Day” three times is also internationally known as a call of distress, derived from the French m'aider, meaning "help me." One May Day initiative calls on repositories as well as individuals to develop comprehensive disaster plan.
Our Oregon Health & Science University Library has a comprehensive Disaster Plan and well trained staff who can respond to any emergency in the library. But are we prepared at home to save our family history and treasures? It doesn’t take a disaster for us to lose our history. It only takes time: our parents and our grandparents grow old and infirm and pass away taking their memories with them; important letters and documents grow faint and crumble; photographs get lost, fade or lose their context; we might forget who the man, woman or child is in the photographs with our parents. What memory will the next generation have, unless we save it and pass it on? Before these valuable assets end up in second-hand stores, auctions, or in the trash, before a disaster, or excessive heat, cold or moisture destroy the record, let's consider what we might do to save them.
Fortunately, experts have done much of the work for us by compiling comprehensive lists of Web sites and "how-to" pamphlets that will help us get started with the preservation, and if need be, the salvage of our papers, photographs and other unique and significant items. Located at the end of this article you will find some of the tools you will need to do just that. Because of war, earthquake, fire and flood or simply because of the ravages of time and loss of memory, now is as good a time as any to educate ourselves and to get started on a preservation project.
“He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man.”