Memory Institutions

Thanks to everyone who provided some thoughtful comments on my last post about cultural heritage collections.  I’m still moving in the direction of defining my own universe of what I will consider as “cultural heritage” collections – but it may also mean that I have to craft a my own name for it.

But before I move on, I wanted to poke a little at an alternative to “cultural heritage” that has also been floated as a collective term for the kinds of institutions that I’m interested in — memory institutions.

Lorcan Dempsey described memory institutions as:

Archives, libraries and museums are memory institutions: they organise the European cultural and intellectual record. Their collections contain the memory of peoples, communities, institutions and individuals, the scientific and cultural heritage, and the products throughout time of our imagination, craft and learning. They join us to our ancestors and are our legacy to future generations. They are used by the child, the scholar, and the citizen, by the business person, the tourist and the learner. These in turn are creating the heritage of the future. Memory institutions contribute directly and indirectly to prosperity through support for learning, commerce, tourism, and personal fulfilment.

In the paper linked above, Dempsey doesn’t provide any sources for his ideas about memory institutions – I’m guessing that it may have been inspired by the discussions in scholarly communities about history, memory and culture and the emergence in the U.S. of digital projects like American Memory (followed by a series of state-level “memory” projects).  Like “cultural heritage” there are few clearly stated definitions for “memory institutions.” Birger Hjørland identifies “memory institution” as a metaphor for many kinds of institutions that create collections of materials, particularly cultural heritage materials.   Both Dempsey and Hjørland suggest that the need for such a term is driven by an increasing focus on digital materials that is jostling traditional institutional definitions.

Like cultural heritage,  memory institution has been picked up by lots of other authors without much fuss about what it could or should mean.  I’m haven’t seen any obvious difference yet when one term is used over the other – or if they are even equivalent terms (or if a cultural heritage institution is a kind of memory institution, or vice versa).  Dempsey says that having the right word is a sign of maturity – the concurrent use of LAM, ALM, “cultural heritage” and “memory institutions” suggests that the community’s ideas about convergence are still fluid.

Culture vs. Memory

On my post about cultural heritage,  Jo and Shawn pointed out the dangers of trying to pin down definitions of culture – the deep scholarship that’s considered  that question; the socially bound understandings of culture, etc. etc. Talking about “memory institutions” might seem like a safe way to avoid these pitfalls, but it comes with a whole host of other problems.   As a metaphor “memory” conjures up our personal experience with memory – it’s what’s in our head, it maybe short or long-term, you might have a better memory than me (highly possible).  What is harder to understand is how memory works on a  collective level.  (see also Hjørland on “exosomatic memory“).  We all carry some trace of individual memories that somehow add up to a larger schema that’s shared by other people – or at least would be recognized by other people as a shared memory.

The problems of understanding individual memory and collective memory seem to map nicely on top of the item-level metadata/collection-level metadata issues we’re exploring in the CIMR research group. Just as collective memory is more than just the sum of all our individual memories, collections are more than just the sum of all the items contained in them.  These distinctions could also be helpful when looking at the difference between collections created by an individual – say the Gardener Collection – verses those created by an institution (e.g. the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) or more broadly by a community of practice (a library, archive or museum).

Institutions vs. Collections

Since my last post, I’ve also been thinking about how to abstract away from collections as defined by their institutional/professional home – don’t library collections share some of the same essential features of archival collections when viewed though an archival lens? (or maybe that’s the question – what features do they share?) While there are many references to cultural heritage collections, there seem to be fewer mentions of memory collections – it’s almost always memory institutions.  (although, I admit, it is difficult to cut through the “American Memory Collection” noise in a organic Google search – relying on Google Scholar for this assertion).  Maybe it is a little easier for us to anthropomorphize an institution over a collection, whereas it is easier to see “cultural heritage” as a kind of collection as well as a kind of institution.

One thing this exploration hasn’t done is move me any closer to being able to point to a clearly understood domain.  Like cultural heritage, the domain of memory institutions also is fairly wide open for interpretation.  Perhaps by combining some of charateristics of entities identified as “cultural heritage” with those identified as “memory” a clearer picture will emerge.  But the way still seems clear to move ahead with defining a domain of my choosing (or as people are encouraging me to do, something more like a subset of that larger domain).

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8 thoughts on “Memory Institutions

  1. Great post. Is this really about describing LAM institutions, OR a particular way of organizing, collecting and presenting archival materials? Is it possible that there’s a distinction that can be made between the institution, and the way an archival object is organized, collected, or presented? Perhaps the push and pull between terminology relates to that difference?

    I became hung-up on this distinction after previously interpreting “cultural heritage” to reference not only institutions, but the archival materials themselves. I also wonder what ways individual scholars can function with similar goals in mind, and how their activities may fit under a working definition. But that may be beyond the scope of what you’re getting at…

  2. 1. you are probably aware of Bob Martin’s discussions of libraries, archives and museums while he was at IMLS. He drew on Otlet, Briet and Levy to suggest the management of ‘documents’ – in a broad sense – as a unifying element. See for example:

    I like this way of using ‘document’ but as with various of the other words we use it becomes confusing when we intend a reserved sense alongside more general usages.

    2. I should point out that the piece you quote above carries the rhetorical reminders of its origins as an EU report ;-)

  3. Hi Dave,

    I think there are a few layers to the cake here. I’m interested in the collections themselves – as whole entities. At the moment access and description of these collections is mediated a) by a specific institution and b) by a professional community of practice. This isn’t necessarily bad, but its unclear whether past practices for physical materials will and should extend to digitized resources. What I’d like to identify are the important features of collections, as conceived by different segments of this domain and see whether they can fit into a more holistic knowledge representation framework.

    There are lots of studies of scholars, but again most focus at the item level and frequently breeze over the importance of collections/collection-level description for navigating to items. I am interested in considering how I might include some collections created by the digital humanities community for comparison – stay tuned for an future post. :)

  4. Lorcan,

    Thanks for the reminder to look at Bob Martin’s work. We also just had a visit from Ian Wilson, Libraries & Archives Canada, with whom I had a very helpful discussion about “documentary” collections. (the audio from his Windsor Lecture is available here: I’ll also be coming back around to that soon. This also reminds me that I should look back at some of Michael Buckland’s work on Briet, etc.

    I’m also a little wary of using “document” in the way the Documentalists did – I think it would be a hard sell in certain parts of the museum community. I think they’ll see it as too “paper-centric” or bibliocentric. But along with my conversation with Dr. Wilson, I may direct my attention towards “documentary collections.”

    2. Duly noted! And I’d hoped this would catch your attention. At one point I thought I’d browsed over something by you with deeper references – a browser crash swept me a away and I haven’t been able to find my way back. On your blog “memory institution” still seems to resonate with you – I’d be interested in hearing your rationale for promoting it.

  5. I am not sure that I have spoken about libraries, archives and museums in great detail elsewhere …

    Historically, much of my interest has been from a policy point of view given my participation in various national and EU activities.

    I do remember conversations in which libraries resisted both a ‘cultural heritage’ and a ‘memory’ tag on the grounds that in some contexts they were unhelpfully narrowing. Especially if you were trying to attach yourself to an education or innovation agenda.

  6. Pingback: Memory Institutions | CHeriCoS

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