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The Genealogists’ Memory

By Daniel Hubbard | July 21, 2013

A person’s memories are not created instantaneously. There is a process of assimilation. We think of our memories as if they are created by a recording device—formed instantly, perfectly and unalterably. That isn’t the way it actually works. Forming a memory starts in an instant but it can take a lifetime.

Our collective memory works the same way. Everything from broad historical research to our quite specific genealogical endeavors goes into slowly forming society’s memory of itself. It begins with documents and artifacts and ends, if it ever ends, with complexity and ambiguity and hopefully some knowledge.

When we lose those documents and artifacts, it is impossible to carryout that process of memory formation. I read the other day that in May in Albemarle County, Virginia a collection WPA records was thrown away and apparently lost forever. It is not the biggest blow to record preservation but all such loses contribute to a sort of societal senility.

Some of the Bigger Losses

The 1890 U.S. census is commonly believed to have been almost totally destroyed by fire in 1921. It was only partially destroyed, perhaps a quarter was lost outright. Perhaps another quarter was damaged. In 1932 the Census Bureau put the 1890 census on a list of papers to be destroyed. The Librarian of Congress did not identify the census as having historical value. It wasn’t until the mid 1930s that most of the 1890 census was intentionally destroyed.

Hundreds of years of Irish records are famous for being destroyed in 1922 during the civil war. Rebels had seized a building known as Four Courts and as they were surrendering, an enormous explosion destroyed the Public Record Office that was housed within the building and much of Ireland’s memory disappeared. No one knows whether the destruction was accidental or the result of a booby-trap. Some of Ireland’s memory was already gone even before 1922. The 1861 and 1871 censuses were destroyed not long after they were taken. During WWI the 1881 and 1891 censuses were recycled because paper was in short supply.

Compared to such intentional destruction, or the space saving measures that caused the loss of the Bremen ship’s manifests, one county throwing away one set of valuable records might seem a small thing but it all represents memories we will never be able to form.

Many organizations preserve our records; government offices, archives, libraries, museums, and historical and genealogical societies. Those last two are places where anyone can make a difference. They often gladly become custodians of records that no one else can or will care for. Speaking as the president of a genealogical society that preserves records and gives people access to them, I think I can say that most societies need help. They need members whose dues are used to pay for preservation and storage. They need donations and they need volunteers who can keep the reading rooms open and organized. Without that help, our collective amnesia will only grow.

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