2015: Libraries, Archives, and Public Memory

Session #64 (Twitter hashtag #mla2015 #s64)
Thursday, January 8, 1:45–3:00 p.m., West 205, VCC West

How do libraries and archives function as sites for preserving and constructing public memory?

Libraries, archives and other institutions (such as museums, cemeteries, heritage sites, and monuments) all function as sites where the public memory of individuals, events, and cultures are constructed and preserved. One might also add that libraries and archives in shaping memory also shape what is forgotten and repressed. This session is looking for papers that engage the many ways libraries and archives contribute to our understanding and misunderstanding of people, events, and cultures, as, for instance, that of first-nations and first-peoples. How do libraries and archives express and repress public memory? What are the ethical and technical issues involved in building and providing access to materials that will constitute public memory? What is the experience of scholars using library and archival collections as they create their own forms of public memory (articles, books)?

A Free Press for the Blind: Book Selection, Censorship, and the Talking Book Library
Matthew Rubery, Queen Mary University of London

The United States Library of Congress’s Talking Book Service was established in 1934 to provide books for war-blinded soldiers. The Service enabled the nation’s 130,000 blind people, many of whom were unable to read braille and depended on other people for access to books, to read for themselves. The first recordings included Shakespeare; the Declaration of Independence; and the King James Bible. The initiative was widely celebrated for giving blind people access to books. But such accounts left out another side of the story. In February 1939, Eleanor Catherine Judd called into question this narrative of progress by pointing out that book selection continued to frustrate blind readers. Too often the committee responsible for selecting books chose titles thought to be beneficial for blind people instead of the ones being read by everyone else. In a letter to the New York Times, Judd complained: “Is it fair? Shouldn’t we be given what we want, and not what the committee feels we should have?”

Judd joined a long tradition of protest by people with visual disabilities against being treated differently from other readers. Since the first records went out in the mail, blind readers complained that they did not have access to the same books—namely, popular fiction—as other people. The selection committee’s preference for literature published before the twentieth century meant that patrons had no way of reading best-sellers like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, even though that one book, according to Judd, would give them more pleasure than all of the Greek tragedies combined.

This presentation traces a series of controversies in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s over what books should be recorded for blind people. Questions about the role of pleasure, edification, and enrichment came up repeatedly during these decades as the Library of Congress struggled to formulate a book selection policy to meet the needs of a diverse, outspoken readership. The central issue was whether a committee of well-intentioned experts should decide what was best for blind readers or whether readers ought to decide this for themselves—even if this meant neglecting the best that has been thought and said in favor of titles soon forgotten.

The debate over censorship resembled discussions taking place elsewhere in the blind community over who had the authority to make decisions about blind people’s welfare. Many blind people still remembered the paternalist style of care imposed on them earlier in the century by agencies, at times disproportionately made up of sighted people, deciding what was good for them. In 1949, the Library’s Director of Administration was asked, “Is there any kind of censorship exercised by the Library of Congress in the selection of titles to be published for the blind?” His answer: “Positively not.” Yet archives preserved by the Library of Congress, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), and the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) suggest that the issue of censorship was more complex than custodians of the talking book service led people to believe. As this presentation will show, the selection committee did more than choose books with good intentions. Shortly after the Director’s denial of censorship, the Library of Congress established a committee to ensure that blind people were not reading obscene or subversive books. In sum, this presentation addresses the role of the nation’s Talking Book Library in shaping blind people’s access to knowledge while at the same time shaping the public’s knowledge of blind people.

Port Radium Postmemory: Dene Stories, Public Archives, and Social (In)Justice
Alana FletcherQueen’s University

In 1930, two prospectors struck a large deposit of pitchblende on the northeast shore of Great Bear Lake, in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT), and staked a claim. Under the auspices of the Eldorado corporation, the area, which came to be known as Port Radium, was developed into a major global source of radium and uranium. In 1942, Port Radium was nationalized by the Canadian government under mounting pressure from the United States, which ordered in excess of two hundred and twenty tons of uranium oxide from Port Radium to support the Manhattan Project. Materials mined on Great Bear Lake and refined in Ontario, Canada would become the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The official histories of the Port Radium mine as a triumph of Canadian industrialism on a global scale, written in the monuments and museums established by Canadian and US governments and the books authored by Eldorado-sponsored historian Robert Bothwell, have been increasingly challenged over the last twenty years. This paper arises out of a book-length project examining the role of adaptation in the (re-)creation of national and international public memories of the Port Radium mine and, perhaps more significantly, of the Dene, the local indigenous population dispossessed and disoriented by mine operations. Dene oral histories of the mine have been adapted by both community and outside contributors into newspaper articles, essays, policy papers, documentary films, poems, and stage performances. This critical and creative “writer-activism,” as Rob Nixon calls it, has created a dynamic public archive of the Dene people’s ongoing attempts to obtain official recognition of their role in uranium production, and remediation and compensation for the negative effects they believe the industry had. In this paper, I consider selected works representing this long chain of adaptation alongside the more traditional public archiving projects undertaken at the Deline Knowledge Center and the NWT Archives of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center. These different “archives” work in tandem to keep the story of Dene involvement at Port Radium in the public eye; however, the signification of these archival modes within public memory is increasingly divorced from community memory.

As Della Pollock has pointed out, not only museum, archive, and other heritage presentations, but stage plays, printed collections, and other representations work to re-insert private or community memory into public consciousness (Remembering: Performing Oral History).What complicates the re-insertion of the Dene’s collective memory of area mining into public consciousness is the reliance of their memory itself on representations; as those who directly experienced mine operations continue to pass away, the Dene’s relationship to mining becomes more and more postmemorial (see Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory).And in the absence of tangible connections to the past, the mutually-informing “cultural circuit” (Richard Johnson) between private and public memory becomes heavily weighted towards the public. Just as adaptations often overshadow their originals, representations, in postmemorial experience, come to speak not only of, but for, lived experiences. A central issue arising from this realization concerns the ethics of continued archival activity around the Dene experience at Port Radium, be it traditional or more broadly defined: as Sara Ahmed notes, reduction of another’s experience to documentation is at the crux of ethnography’s simultaneous creation and destruction of the other (Ahmed, “Who Knows?”). The major question I explore in this presentation, then, is whether public archives speak of, or speak for, private memory, and whether archival simulacra of social injustice can effectively intervene in the issues they represent.

Making Space for Students: Assigning Archival Research in the Undergraduate Course
Laurie McNeill, Department of English, University of British Columbia

Concerns about archives as producers of public memory have emerged as a key issue for contemporary archival studies (e.g., Derrida; Jimerson; Schwartz and Cook). Rodney Carter builds on this conversation in articulating an ethics of inclusive archives, one attentive to archival “gaps” and “silences” that reproduce social marginalizing of particular groups (216); similarly concerned with archives’ exclusiveness, Tom Nesmith suggests that archives need “reopening,” in part through “public programming” to help explain the role of archives and archivists to society (Nesmith 266-67). One way to “open up” the archives, I argue, would be to make space in them for student researchers, and to consider their research experiences as they contribute to public memory through their work. Outside of disciplines such as history—and even within them (Spraggs)—archival teaching and learning opportunities can be rare in the undergraduate curriculum, often for very pragmatic reasons (e.g., the small spaces of archives, the fragility and value of collections). Further, archival research is methodologically challenging, particularly for neophyte scholars still mastering techniques of assessing and selecting materials for analysis. Instructors aiming to get students into the archives for teaching purposes therefore confront issues of archival access—both practical and intellectual—that also engage broader theoretical questions of public memory, power, and representation.

This paper will consider how pedagogical uses of archives address questions of access that are critical to thinking about the role and responsibilities of archives as cultural institutions. How, I ask, can university instructors and archivists invite and equip students to engage with the archives and the issues they raise? How can we help them understand their position not just as consumers but also producers of public memory through such archival work? What insights can student researchers bring to scholarly and cultural concepts of archives? I will begin this discussion by presenting an archives analysis assignment I have required for the past four years in my first-year Arts Studies class, a course that combines the study of literature with that of academic writing and research. In designing this project, I have worked closely with the archivists in UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections, a cross-disciplinary partnership that has been mutually informative. In our continual revising of this assignment, we have gained insights into practical barriers that hinder students’ archival research, as well as the cultural and theoretical assumptions held by both experts and novices that can create difficulties.

Works Cited

Carter, Rodney. “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence”. Archivaria 61 (2006): 215-33. Web. 2 Jan. 2013.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.
Jimerson, Randall C. “Archives and memory.” OCLC Systems & Services 19.3 (2003): 89-95. Emerald. Web. 22 January 2013.
Nesmith, Tom. “Reopening Archives: Bringing New Contextualities into Archival
Theory and Practice”. Archivaria 60 (2005): 259-74. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.
Schwartz Joan & Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-19. Web. 22 Jan 2014.
Spraggs, Gillian. Using Archives in Higher Education History Teaching. Society of Archivists, 2008. PDF. Web. 4 Feb 2014.

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  1. MLA 2015 Session Dates and Times
    MLA 2015 Session Dates and Times · December 27, 2014 at 19:46:00 · →

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