On The Past, Memory, and History

By Michael W. Harris

N.B.: This is not the promised “Part Deux” I teased at the end of my last post. Rather, think of it as Part 1.5. Also, thanks to my friends who I pestered with questions of “what is the difference between history, the past, and memory?” this week.

In my capacity as a student in libraries and archives, I have been thinking a lot about three words that get thrown about in my readings: history, memory, and the past. Two particular uses that have been rattling around my head for a few months are:

“Memory’s archivist is interested in the past’s residue as material for promoting integrated knowledge, social identity, and the formation of group consciousness; history’s archivist is interested in finding records and, in them, uncovering evidence to develop a linear narrative about a past that is ours, yet different from us.”
—Brien Brothman, “The Past that Archives Keep: Memory, History, and the Preservation of Archival Records,” Archivaria 51 (2002): 62.

“With the nineteenth century, this attitude toward the past changed dramatically. Because of the revulsion (symbolized by Romanticism) felt toward the dirty, crowded present of the Industrial Revolution, especially when contrasted with idealistic notions of a chivalrous medieval past; because of the sharp separation of the past (ancien regime) from the present that was both raison d’etre and vivid legacy of the French Revolution; and because of the post-Napoleonic nationalisms springing up across Europe that sought continuity and legitimacy in long-distant historical roots for their region or locality, nineteenth-century observers came to view the past, Lowenthal asserts [in The Past Is a Foreign Country], as a place quite different from the present. Attitudes toward the preservation of artifacts from that past consequently shifted radically as well, from the antiquarian to the professional, from passive neglect to active collecting.”
—Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape,” American Archivist 74, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2011): 603.

Basically, what Cook and Brothman (both Canadian archivists with a particular bent towards archival theory…one of my new favorite topics) are implicitly saying in these passages  is that the three words are interrelated and yet separate, and that how we interact with them has changed. To me, it also speaks to the very real difference between them, even though, I feel, we tend to treat them uncritically and to some degree interchangeably. (I have no empirical evidence of this…just a gut feeling.)

It also reminds me of a famous scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is at the beginning of the film after the opening sequence in which Dr. Jones obtains the Cross of Coronado. He is back in his classroom lecturing to row after row of doe-eyed coeds, and states, “Archaeology is the search for fact…not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

And I think that distinction, that “fact” and “truth” are not the same thing, is similar to what I think about “history,” “memory,” and “the past.” All these things are related, but we must tread carefully when we use them. History is NOT the Past, history is something we perform ON the past. As Brothman said in the above quote, “history’s archivist is interested in finding records and, in them, uncovering evidence to develop a linear narrative about a past that is ours, yet different from us.” History is about researching the past, finding all that you can, and trying to present that in a coherent narrative in order to extract meaning. But history is basically the interpretation of facts and memories left behind (facts being relics, tangible items, and memories being accounts, diaries, and other traces), but that does not mean that history as presented to us by historians is also truth.

History is written by the victors, and yet memory is fallible. In such an epistemological world, can the truth about the past every be known? Without having access to a TARDIS, that is.

I still need to do much more research into the intellectual history of each of these separate ideas, as I know there is a rich field of endless theorizing and philosophizing on them out there waiting to be tapped. However, I also sense that this might be one of those topics where there is no consensus, at least when you really dig into it, and in the end, the only “answer” is…


Part of the reason I am thinking about this right now is because I am working on a proposal to possibly start incorporating some oral history elements into our department’s holdings. Having not studied in-depth what oral history actually is or how one goes about doing oral history, I have been reading some articles and books to try and get a theoretical grounding on it. But I keep turning over the simple contradiction of “memories are fallible and shown to be prone to influence and change,” and yet we use people’s memories, diaries, written accounts, etc., while doing history. Yes, what makes oral history History, is that a good interviewer will go in having done research and be able to prompt where the interviewee’s memory eludes them, and be more than just a recorder of stories.

And yet, knowing what we do about memory, that very act of prompting, filling in names and dates…that can alter a memory.

So history can be based on facts, but it is also based on memory…so can it ever be “truth?” Is “The Past” truly recoverable? And what about the effect of nostalgia on memory, and what does this say about political campaigns that bank on people wanting to recreate a remembered past when things were better?

I still have many questions about this topic, but I find it endlessly fascinating. I have always been intrigued by concepts of time, memory, and knowledge. One can say that human “civilization” properly began when we started writing down a record of events that happened. I also contend that writing is the greatest human invention ever, the invention from which all other inventions spring. But that’s just me.

Lots of questions, and I look forward to searching for more answers throughout my lifetime.

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