Tuesday, 27 January 2015

“Our job is memory” - Lily Hyde

The title is from this fascinating article from the NewYorker, which gave me much food for (rambling) thoughts about words and reality, libraries and the Internet, memories and memorials.

In it, the writer attacks the myth that what’s online stays online forever. Instead, she says, the Internet is intrinsically ephemeral. Unlike books, the Internet cannot be catalogued because it lacks the dimension of time; online, it’s always today. Academic and legal footnotes and references to books and documents (those painstaking page numbers, edition, publish date) have been replaced by web links. But what happens when those links no longer exist? The evidence disappears, the original source vanishes; anything could be true. 

Anyone who says we no longer need libraries because ‘it’s all online’ should read this article. It isn’t all online. Some of it might have been, yesterday, but that’s no guarantee that it will be today. Or it might look like what was there yesterday is still there today, but in fact it could have been completely rewritten since yesterday, and you’d never know.    

Funnily enough, I spent most of yesterday hunting for an online article about some Russian legislation, adopted in October last year, that retroactively legalises pro-Russian authorities in Crimea from February 2014 when Crimea, according to Russian law, was legally part of Ukraine. From a legal point of view, Russia rewrote history with that bit of legislation. 

The article, as far as I can see, is no longer on the Internet. It disappeared, and history is rewritten. 

I know, history is always rewritten, that’s what history is; a constant interrogation of the evidence from yesterday, viewed through the inescapable prism of today. But what if the evidence from yesterday no longer exists? What if it’s been written over, or just disappeared?

Two years ago I visited the museum of political history in St Petersburg. It used to be called the museum of the revolution (there you go, history rewritten). It’s full of fascinating exhibits, but the one that struck me most was a catalogue of exhibits that weren’t there.

It was a fat, handwritten ledger, open on a page listing all the documents and artefacts relating to Trotsky which had been removed in the late 1920s, when Trotsky was ‘rewritten’ as an enemy of the people. The museum staff had got rid of the historical evidence, yet they had kept a carefully catalogued record of the evidence that no longer existed. I really wonder why they did that. Despite orders to rewrite the past did they too believe, like the Internet librarians, that ‘our job is memory’?

Is that really what a library is – a repository of memory? As someone who uses libraries all the time as a reader and as a writer (just got my PLR statement, hurrah!) I started to wonder, do we write books, fact and fiction, because at least part of our job is memory? 

Libraries are repositories of facts and interpretations of facts to make versions of history, but they are also a storehouse for imaginary worlds and other people’s memories. We write things down so as not to forget them. We record them and we transform them through language, through fancy, through characters, into (in the best books) something unforgettable. 

Do we write (do we read) to remember, or to be remembered?

This is my last post for ABBA, for the moment anyway. Its been a privilege to contribute alongside such wonderful fellow writers, and a huge thank you to the administrators who keep it running. If you’re interested, you can follow my blog, updated mostly about Ukraine and Crimea affairs these days. Thanks for reading!   



Sue Purkiss said...

Thought-provoking, as ever. Is Orwell somewhere saying, 'There, I told you so!'?

Nick Green said...

And I think of that carbonised scroll from the library of Herculaneum, which even now, with the help of X rays, they are starting to be able to read. Not even Vesuvius could erase those words.

Nick Green said...

And I think of that carbonised scroll from the library of Herculaneum, which even now, with the help of X rays, they are starting to be able to read. Not even Vesuvius could erase those words.

Lily said...

Yes, Sue, I wonder if Orwell would be more smug or horrified with the force of his 'told you so'.

Wow, Nick, I wonder what that scroll will turn out to say, probably a shopping list... I love the quote in the newyorker article from the 'Chief Internet Evangelist' saying we need “digital vellum”. or maybe just, you know, actual vellum.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I'm far away beyond the Stix and so have just picked up your blog. Thanks Lily for all your interesting blogs. We will miss you – but everyone needs a break from time to time.
Funny you should say the Internet can't be trusted because an article might be there one moment and then removed the next... I find I can't even track what I found the day before, so fascinating. It just gets lost in the quagmire of information. I suppose Bookmarking is the answer but the Bookmarks too become a quagmire.

lily said...

Thanks Dianne. yes, or when you bookmark something only to get 'page not found' next time you look...