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The role of memory is central to the humanities. The ability to recall the past in the present points to something fundamental about human consciousness: a capability to weigh decisions in terms of the past. In this way, memory–especially public memory–is not only salient but fundamental to politics.

The document, as a historical genre and media form, is mired in considerations related to memory. All documents, at their root, exist to externalize aspects of human memory and present it epistemically: what Lisa Gitelman refers to as their “know-show” function (Gitelman 2014). Documents, then, are:

  1. Fundamentally social and publicly-oriented.
  2. Largely concerned with the transmission of memory.
  3. Epistemic, in that their primary aim is to not only store but transmit knowledge. Crucially, this transmission is typically motivated and rhetorical.

Regarding point three: one of the most global effects of documentation is their role in the establishment and maintenance of empires. Trouillot (2015), for example, has argued that archival erasures help to create history in favor of empires. Ann Laura Stoler (2009), additionally, has discussed the role in archival documents during King Leopold’s genocide in the Congo. Memory, in these contexts, is materially constructed by way of archived documents in order to establish and maintain transnational oppression.

This realization has led to shifts within the archival sciences over the last several decades. Archives and archivists have often taken on an ethos of impartiality, but recent scholarship and developments in archival science have challenged that impartiality. Archivists have begun to critically examine their own roles in the production of history and their own social responsibilities toward knowledge, history, and power. (Blouin 1999; Wallace 2011; Light and Hyry 2002).

By collecting and categorizing historical artifacts, which affects artifacts’ reception by scholars and by the public, archives exert power over the historical record. Archivists, however, exist within complicated institutional and ideological settings, and therefore do not have full control over the way their archives present historical records. It is the role of the researcher, then, to consider the archive not as a stable site of historical “discovery” but rather as a motivated and rhetorical construction.

References

Blouin, Francis X. 1999. “Archivists, Mediation, and Constructs of Social Memory.” Archival Issues 24 (2): 101–12.

Gitelman, Lisa. 2014. Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.

Light, Michelle, and Tom Hyry. 2002. “Colophons and Annotations: New Directions for the Finding Aid.” The American Archivist 65 (2): 216–30.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Book, Whole. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. https://go.exlibris.link/jdn062z8.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, and Hazel V. Carby. 2015. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Book, Whole. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. https://go.exlibris.link/C7ppvR7q.

Wallace, David A. 2011. “Introduction: Memory Ethics—or the Presence of the Past in the Present.” Archival Science 11 (1): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-011-9140-7.