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On the persistence of public memory: value and appraisal in archives

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  • While many themes were touched upon in this week’s readings, I would like to focus my presentation on Dr. Cox’s discussion on public memory and its affect on archival appraisal. The issue of memory – be it collective, personal, or national – is a fascinating area of interest for me, and while I have started to familiarize myself on the subject in the theoretical post-modernist context, I have not read too much literature about memory and its relationship with appraisal decisions in archives.
  • In chapter 9 of his book, “Appraisal as an act of memory,” Dr. Cox outlines a discussion of public memory and its influence on archives and archival functions like appraisal. In the quote above, Dr. Cox addresses the complicated nature of this relationship, presenting memory as it employs archives as a crutch for loss and sense of societal memory. The whatever comes in whatever route Dr. Cox states, of course, is the problematic crux at hand for archivists when dealing with issues of authenticity and relevance in the archive. The origins and content of the records we possess play an integral role in our collection and appraisal policies; and with the proliferation of records and the expansive notion of record making including more and more social and cultural groups, needless to say, can create a touchy and complex subject to address.
  • To further complicate this relationship, one must also think about the ephemeral and highly subjective nature of memory in both the personal and collective realm. Because memory is relative to an individual’s own perception and experience, it is constantly changing and contextualizing with other perceptions and further points of realities. Never at one point can one truly be sure of getting the total truth or reality of an event. This nature complicates the responsibility of the archivist when attempting to appraise her institution’s collections, since there is never a total grasp of an event’s evidential reality.
  • In order for archivists to take on responsibility of their own subjective actions during appraisal, Dr. Cox stresses the importance on documenting these decisions for the greater sake of current and future generations of archive users and archivists. Without thorough documentation of what was appraised, there won’t be a trace of what once was recorded in the collection; indeed appraisal can serve as an act of remembering or better put, re-tracing collections as they once were. And with the nature of public memory that constantly reshapes the record and its value, the appraisal function should reflect this as well, Cox states. A re-imagining of appraisal that is in better conversation with the realities that grapple public memory in its constant changing state, Cox states, might force archivists to constantly re-appraise certain records and collections.
  • It wasn’t until about 30 years after the injustices suffered by Japanese Canadians that a younger generation, the sensai (grandchildren of Japanese immigrants), sought collective legal justice from the government for those that were affected. Through the formation of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, sensais were able to use the government documentation collected at the National Archives at start the uprooting to seek redress and justice.
  • Through the use of two government collections of records that were created during the period of uprooting, the Custodian of Enemy Property and the Bird Commission, the NAJC was able to compile enough information to publish their 1984 brief that outlined, in detail, the economic losses suffered by Japanese Canadians. The NAJC was able to use these records under the 8(2) (i) clause of the Privacy Act that allows the National Archives to grant access to the case files that contained personal information for “research and statistical purposes” (Roberts-Moore 70). It wasn’t until 1988 after a long contention over how the redress should be addressed, that the House of Parliament publically apologized for “the treatment accorded the Japanese Canadians during the Second World War” (Roberts-Moore 71). Prime Minister Mulroney called the government treatment of Japanese Canadians “unjust” and recognized that such treatment“violated the principles of human rights as they are understood today” (Roberts-Moore 71). Also implemented was the Redress Agreement and the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat in the Department of the Secretary of State that used the same records at the National Archive to award affected individuals monetary compensation.
  • So after all was said and done, so to speak, in 1994 many of the records underwent appraisal and only a few were selected for the “transfer” in to the archive. The article does not do a very good job in describing exactly what this transfer means. My guess is that only a few records were transferred to the permanent collection of the National Archives. Nonetheless, perhaps one of the key points spelled out in the article is the fact that the case’s records, the Custodian of Enemy Property and the Bird Commission, were actually acquired by the National Archives before the NA started implementing a macro-appraisal policy for their records. This means that before the implementation of macro-appraisal, these records were deemed of unquestionable archival value and therefore kept. If the records had been acquired after the NA’s implementation of their new appraisal strategy, then a bulk of the records would have been deemed not valuable enough for archival purposes and perhaps would have been susceptible to deaccession.This case study shows that the perception on value of records evolves through the passage of time, and with it the formation and reformation of public memory. It took the persistence of public memory some generations later to publically address the injustices done to Japanese Canadians during WWII. If it wasn’t for the efforts pursued by the NAJC, these injustices would have been left without government recognition and redress. Most significant, perhaps, is the chance that these records happen to be ‘whole’ and ‘complete’ when the redress occurred. What would have happened if these records had been appraised before redress could have happened? How would have appraisal affected the case for 17,000 Japanese Canadians to receive compensation for their losses?
  • Transcript

    • 1. publicmemory archives
    • 2.  “Public memory suggests that whatever comes into an archives, by whatever route, is important for society’s collective sense of its past. Archives in this sense are testimony to the loss, imagined and real, of societal memory” (Cox 234).
    • 3.  “the notion of public memory… suggests the ability of society to be constantly forming and reforming the manner in which we view a record or artifact – making one wonder, if memory is a criterion for appraisal, just how many times an appraisal decision would change over a few decades” (Cox 241). › Zelizer’s “history-in-motion”; “collective memory is more mobile and mutable than history” (Cox quoting Barbie Zelizer, 240).
    • 4.  “Archival appraisal is… an artifact of its times, and the documentation we should have of the appraisal process could be very useful in helping both users of archives and archivists themselves to comprehend the effects of appraisal decisions” (Cox 245). “The vicissitudes of public memory may force archivists to reimagine appraisal not as a one- time act in regard to a specific group of records, but as a continuous process” (Cox 253).
    • 5.  During WWII 22,000 Japanese Canadians were stripped of their Canadian citizenship and property and “uprooted” to internment camps on the basis of posed national threats. › The issuing of the “JP” form – a document that attested to property and financial status; 17,135 cases were reported on this form › By 1949, all Japanese Canadians were released and given their citizenship back; however, property had been absconded by the government.  Only 1,434 claims were sought and awarded compensation in 1950
    • 6.  “Up until the 1970s, Japanese Canadians did not publically talk about those events or question their fairness” (Roberts-Moore 69). “Beginning in 1983, the NAJC mounted a continuous campaign for redress from the federal government for the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War” (Roberts-Moore 70). › The usage of records in the National Archives of Canada
    • 7.  NAJC’s 1984 brief: Democracy Betrayed: the Case for Redress › “made use of archival documents to prove that the uprooting of the Japanese Canadian community took place because of “racism and political opportunism”” (Roberts-Moore 70). › The study concluded the economic losses suffered by the Japanese Canadians totaled $443 million in 1984 dollars.  $333 million in income loss; $110 million in property loss In 1988 – the Redress Agreement awarded $21,000 to each eligible Japanese Canadian who suffered losses during their internment and $12 million to the NAJC to undertake activities that promote human rights
    • 8.  “In 1994, the National Archives of Canada undertook an archival appraisal of those records and recommended that certain administrative and operational records as well as an electronic database be acquired as the archival record. Only a small example of case files were recommended for transfer since their contents duplicated records already held by the Archives or were largely administrative in nature” (Roberts-Moore 72). “The Custodian of Enemy Property and Bird Commission records with their extensive case files were acquired by the National Archives long before the Archives developed its macro-appraisal theory, methodology, and strategy. Application of conventional appraisal criteria determined that the records had high archival value. Although the National Archives has recently adopted the strategic approach embodied in macro-appraisal, there is no question that these records have archival value” (Roberts- Moore 73).
    • 9.  What kind of value, if possible, can we as archivists assign to public memory when appraising our collections? Keeping the NAC/NAJC case in mind, how can archives and archivists address the changing value of records with the constantly evolving perception of public memory while answering their own questions about appraisal?
    • 10.  Cox, Richard. “Appraisal as an act of memory” in No Innocent Deposits, 231-258. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Roberts-Moore, Judith. “Establishing Recognition of Past Injustices: Uses of Archival Records in Documenting the Experience of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War.” Archivaria 53 (Spring 2002): 64-75.