Seeing the Forest for the Trees - My Thread of Memory Activism

I'm filing this post loosely under my Worklog. Previous visitors to my site may have noticed my tagline:

| Digital Curator | Memory Activist |

When it comes to my current work and the topics I address on this blog channel, digital curation is most assuredly front and center. But these two disciplines, digital curation and memory activism, go hand in hand for me in more ways than one. And if I had to be honest, from the days I first started studying history and archiving seriously, the feeling that all of my work is really about trying to pin down and understand the shifty nature of human memory is what this is really all about for me. The forms it takes. The ways we use and abuse it. The legacies it perpetuates.

The work of preserving culture in digital formats fascinates me to no end, both the technical and the social dimensions. But I will be the first person to tell you that in the work of digital curation, particularly as it is carried out in an academic environment, it can be very easy to lose the forest for the trees. We frequently have to shift our focus away from the content, the substance of memory in its digital representation, and wrestle at the level of the bits and bytes, at the level of format signatures, and executing repetitive algorithms over top of large aggregations of data. Meaningful work to be sure. In fact imperative work to ensure that the content, the memories, survive forward in time through the unsympathetic vicissitudes of technological change.

 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, © Matt Schultz

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, © Matt Schultz

But in order for me to continue in that work I frequently have to reconnect myself to the forest of the work of memory, as it operates in the larger movements of culture and society, in the daily lives of people and politics. I have to get myself out of the office, out from behind the computer, and hit the streets. I have to take in the sights, the smells, the tastes of the places whose histories have opened up for me only previously on the page or in the two dimensions of a digital photograph.

Before I went to school for archiving and digital preservation I studied the history of modern Germany and postwar Europe, and gradually hunkered down into trauma and memory studies--focusing on genocide and transitional justice. I carried my concerns for the process of collective/social memory-making that takes place in the aftermath of national traumas into my study of archives, focusing on the role that archives play--both positively and negatively--in recovering, distorting, and often-times erasing the histories of communities. I took a keen interest in the way that communities forge their own informal archives.

 Index cards detailing the identities of SS members of the Third Reich targeted for prosecution in the postwar judicial proceedings of the new Federal Republic. Raised cards like this are one of only 16 out of 7000 that were ever fully prosecuted. © Matt Schultz

Index cards detailing the identities of SS members of the Third Reich targeted for prosecution in the postwar judicial proceedings of the new Federal Republic. Raised cards like this are one of only 16 out of 7000 that were ever fully prosecuted. © Matt Schultz

I would say that our Young Lords in Lincoln Park oral histories at GVSU are a living example of a marginalized community archiving itself. And a fantastic example of our institutional archives playing the very best supportive role for that work.

I go out of my way to connect with the landscapes of memory that came alive for me when I first started down this professional path. Last fall I made a pilgrimage to Berlin for the first time to visit the memorials spread out across the city to the victims of Nazi extermination--the Jews, the Sinti and Roma, and Homosexuals. All very moving sites of remembrance. The memorial to the Sinti and Roma peoples in particular moved me to tears, and reminded me of the importance of absorbing the past on these visceral and bodily levels. The experience animated me all over again to make intentional efforts to be a living witness in our times to the plight of marginalized peoples. I've written a little bit about this in a two-part series of entries on my sister blog [dys+-(u)topia].

 Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under National Socialism © Matt Schultz

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under National Socialism © Matt Schultz

One month from today I will be waking up in Sarajevo, where again, I will make an effort to connect with the people and the culture of a place that from 1992 to 1996, suffered the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. This was during the Bosnian War and the breakup of Yugoslavia. What Bosnia and Sarajevo went through over 20 years ago was a cold reminder that the global community had not done nearly enough to internalize and spread the lessons of the Holocaust. Television viewers around the world had to daily watch factions within the region divide themselves along perceived ethnic lines and engage in acts of "ethnic cleansing"--village to village roundups, imprisonment, systematic rape, and mass execution.

 Concertina Wire, Sarajevo 1996. Photo courtesy Flickr user  Dale Cruse  under a  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

Concertina Wire, Sarajevo 1996. Photo courtesy Flickr user Dale Cruse under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

To this day, Bosnia remains a very divided country, and is working through official and unofficial processes to transition to a more stable, representative democracy within Europe.

I'm going to Sarajevo to observe, to listen, and to learn--to allow the various trajectories that the peoples of Bosnia have taken to both remember and forget the crimes, atrocities, and tragedies that have taken place there, to sink in and maybe, just maybe, get a little closer to pinning down for myself the shifting nature of human memory. Like my trip to Berlin I am confident I will come back to my work in digital curation re-energized to continue preserving the images, the sounds, the stories of people and communities from my own region (like the Young Lords)--despite all the technical and social challenges. Or at the very least I will have deepened my engagement with this important work of memory activism, and who knows where that could continue to take me. The world is full of conflicts, post-conflict resolutions, and transitional justice movements.

But I share this on my Worklog now mainly because I'm interested in the ways that my fellow digital curators and fellow librarians and archivists work out their own creative threads of connection back to the intellectual passions that set them down the path to the practical work that they engage in day in and day out. I think it is important that we not lose hold of those threads. Libraries and archives are notoriously full of young and old professionals who came into this work quite often from English majors, History majors, Sociology backgrounds, you name it. How do you keep your "first loves" alive and weave them throughout your work? Where do those first loves need to guide you in your work within and perhaps even beyond your current position in the profession? It doesn't have to be travel. It could be as simple as the literature or scholars you go out of your way to read and keep up with?

Whatever you do...keep it up!