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Review of Several Archival Studies Works

 ·  ☕ 4 min read

I want to respond primarily to memory, (re)membering, and forgetting in two ways; 1) in institutional/historical/archival senses and in personal ones; and 2) in physico-cognitive and digital senses. Douglas’ article (appropriately) moved me in a number of ways, especially the descriptions she had of Montgomery’s creation, recreation, remembering and literal re/dis-membering of her self and her journals:

The journal served, initially, as an “old friend” in whom she could confide and an outlet—her “only safe outlet”—for her “grumbles” ….as she copied entries, she also began to paste photographs into the new journal as illustrations of the people and events she described… At the same time, she was destroying other papers; her son recalled that Montgomery “burned quantities of letters and papers” before she died, and she was also known to have “razored” several pages from the copied volumes she prepared and to have replaced them with others.1

Douglas notes that both Montgomery and Aurelia Plath were characterized as creating deliberate, meticulous and intentional in their self/other-construction and presentation. Douglas brings these characterizations and examines them through her own experiences and the experiences of other (re)membering mothers. The juxtaposition of these two threads is a powerful and poignant reexaminiation of those older takes—they leave a bad taste in the mouth.

I am using the term “(re)membering” deliberately here. Remembering can just be the act of sitting down and recalling something that happened to you, that affected you, visualizing it, and then writing it down. However it can also be literally re-_member_ing: reconstituting the members, (arms, legs, bodies and character) of a person—bringing them back to life. This is the work that historians and archivists do all the time: they take on emotional grief and weight, and labor to reconstitute and (re)member people gone. But we don’t often talk about the a/effect that that has on us personally—we are expected to be professional, dispassionate and to ‘do the job.’ But no one would tell a mother who lost a child and wants to (re)member them to ‘do the job’ or ‘suck it up,’ which is why Douglas’ piece is so important.2

There is another aspect of memory and forgetting that I would like to talk about—the physical and digital one. Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at UC Irvine, deals heavily with memory and forgetting. In discussing her research on Radiolab in 2007, she talks about how she and other researchers discovered that they could distort or create entirely new memories through simple suggestion. They tell subjects that they had spoken with the subject’s parents and then convince them of all sorts of things—being lost in the mall as a child, being attacked by an animal, nearly drowning and being rescued by a lifeguard and more.3 McGill Professor of Psychology Karim Nader explains it this way: “When a memory is retrieved, it is transformed into a vulnerable state in which it can be lost, changed or strengthened depending on the experimental manipulation,” and in fact the memory itself is being “rebuilt, recreated,” (re)membered.4 This, I would argue, is exactly what happens in an archive. Material is vulnerable, it can be lost, strengthened, or manipulated. Stories can be told, journals can be altered: “while largely remaining unacknowledged, affects and emotions, subjective and personal, have always been an integral part of archives and records in all their various forms.” 5

Not only does this play out in the physical sense described here—it also plays out in the digital sense, as anyone who has had to use Recuva or some other file rescue software can tell you. Due to space, I cannot explore this further, but both Ciaran Trace and Jean-François Blanchette point this out: “bits cannot escape the material constraints of the physical devices that manipulate, store, and exchange them… [there is a] phenomenon of “data remanence,” the residues left behind by the physical processes used to write and erase digital data.”6 Affect is like this too: there is a phenomenon of grief remanence, archival residue that is left by past lives, loves, and bodies—a remanence that we need to consciously re-member as archivists, historians, or individuals who have their lives “reoriented [and]… moved… in ways [we] could not have imagined and that [we] cannot help but acknowledge.”[^7]


  1. Douglas, Jennifer, “Letting Grief Move Me: Thinking Through the Affective Dimensions of Personal Recordkeeping.” Forthcoming, draft manuscript, 7-8. ↩︎

  2. See, for example, Jenkinson, Hilary. A Manual of Archive Administration Including the Problems of War Archives and Archive Making. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1922;1935;1965. ↩︎

  3. “Memory and Forgetting | Radiolab.” WNYC Studios. WYNC Studios, June 7, 2007. ↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎

  5. Qtd in Douglas, Jennifer (forthcoming): Halilovich, Hariz. “Re-Imaging and Re-Imagining the Past after ‘Memoricide’: Intimate Archives as Inscribed Memories of the Missing.” Archival Science 16, no. 1 (March 2016): 77–92. ↩︎

  6. Blanchette, Jean-François. “A Material History of Bits.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62, no. 6 (June 2011): 1042–57. ↩︎

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Brian M. Watson
Brian M. Watson
Archivist, Historian, Digital Humanist