Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Remembering War

In a couple of weeks the nation will be glued to their television sets watching the new Ken Burns documentary on the Second World War. I assume it will be another epic production built around archival documents and the stories they tell, much like the earlier productions by Burns on the Civil War, baseball, and jazz. And, I recommend that, in order to get ready for this, anyone interested in war and archives read Jay Winter’s Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). Winter’s book, one of a growing personal collection of scholarly books on war, memory, and archives, is one of the more compelling to consider how we remember, memorialize, and sometimes try to forget the human experience of armed conflict.

Winter’s intention is to consider the “memory boom” of the twentieth century, much of it focusing on the great wars, and to consider the differences between history and memory and how we define any form of public remembrance (the latter a term he prefers over public memory). Those interested in archives will find many discussions of their formation and role, from soldiers taking personal photographs to the grand national initiatives to select, interpret, and publish solder’s war-time letters – all of which generated new political and historical agendas that often seemed to have little to do with the reality of war or what participants in combat remembered about their experiences. Winter is grappling, both directly and indirectly, with the forces that shape and influence the process of archiving, both institutionally and personally.

Remembering War is too rich a study to describe in great detail here, but I do want to share just a couple examples of his analysis suggesting the role of archives or the factors impacting on archives and their role.

At one point Winter describes how in Germany after the First World War séances became popular. “Groups of spiritualists, either family members or fictive kin,” Winter writes, “met in a domestic setting where a medium ‘reunited’ families with the spirits of the dead. Here the deceased hinted at the story of their lives after death, and offered the living consolation” (p. 145). Winter describes how one family in particular left a dead son’s room intact, where friends gathered and often read letters of this individual, seeking to conjure up his spirit. I found this a particularly interesting way to describe what goes on in our reference rooms and, in a sense, what researchers, scholars and amateurs alike, may actually be engaged in. Over the past year, as I have been reading the lengthy diary of an archival pioneer, I myself have often felt like I have been engaged in some sort of supernatural dialogue (one that I keep silent about while I am in the archives research center!).

Near the end of his, Winter actually specifically references the notion of the archive when he is reflecting on the interest in memory being “fueled” by a growing interest in the testimony of direct experience: “Moral witnesses speak to us from the other side of a veil. They have seen radical evil and have returned to tell the tale. They embody memory of a certain kind, and remind us that remembering the cruelties of the past is not a choice but a necessity. They are part of the archive. They demand that we face them. Their plea for recognition, for active knowledge, or acknowledgement, is at the heart of the memory boom” (p. 271). Winter is here referring to much more expansive notion of the “archive” than the traditional perspective archivists often bring with them, but it does, in my opinion, provide yet another reason why archivists need to understand how critical it is for them to explain to the public how their repositories and their holdings come to be and why archivists need to be more energetic in comprehending all the forces seeking to act on the voices in their repositories, sometimes trying to silence them (especially when the stories being told deal with the most horrific of human experiences – the deliberate killing of other people in war, declared and undeclared).

Winter’s book can help you consider just what role documentary filmmakers like Burns play in shaping our remembrance of war.