Eesti Elu
Protecting collective memory (1)
Arvamus 25 Mar 2011  Eesti Elu
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The practice of storing cultural material and historical records for the benefit of future generations is one of the oldest practices of our intelligent species. It falls into the same essential category as preparing for next year’s agricultural season. Or that of building shelter against the elements, or the necessity of keeping peaceful relations with neighbours. Such archival treasure troves serve as an invaluable educational resource. Free access to such historically priceless material assists our too often forgetful species from falling victim to repeating the mistakes of the past. Indeed, one cannot imagine the study of history without the practice of archivism, and reasonable access to the work of generations.

Today we live in an era where archives exist for many as mere computer files; hence, are sadly thus sometimes treated with disdain, as temporary items. It is a fact that without written records, whether on stone, papyrus, vellum, parchment or simply paper, humans would not possess that which makes our species unique – a collective memory. Such a memory is invaluable especially for a small people, any cultural entity that for centuries upon centuries had to ensure linguistic and ethnological survival.

Finno-Ugric people have been fortunate to have had many trailblazers in the field of collecting and saving ethnographic material since written history became the norm. Most visible perhaps are achievements in folklore preservation, seen best in the creation of national epics such as the Kalevala, Kalevipoeg and the Hungarian Szigeti Veszedelem (Peril, or Siege of Sziget), which predates the Finnish and Estonian epics by two centuries. While the national epic can assume obvious manipulative form – consider only the impact of the Nibelungenlied on recent German history – there is no arguing that such retelling of history in a popular form cements a feeling of national unity.

A pure archivist should, of course, be apolitical. Unfortunately, historical material can be used selectively for political gain. Further, barring access to historical documents, as was done in the Soviet Union, effectively allows a regime to present a view of the past solely as it behooves the ruling few. In the interest of national security many free nations have also prevented some archival material from being made public. Often, however, this material is indeed made public after a passage of time.

In democratic countries there exist archives that do not deal with state-secrets, foreign policy, or wartime decisions. Presidential libraries in the U.S. are a fountain of information for the historian. Let us not forget University libraries, the Library of Congress, national library systems in Canada, Britain and so on.

To this list add the smaller scale collections of historical material such as the official minutes of the meetings of organizations, church councils, local governments, and many similar groups. These records mirror the actual tenor of the times, including either opposition or support for any significant changes in governing or administering public policy. Quite obviously some historical material from this category can be used for ends, which might not be tied to the public good.

Such a concern was raised recently by Canadian archivists with regard to what took place last year in Hungary. A lengthy e-mail thread reached an Estonian archivist, who sent it along to EE Online. (It is available in full under the title Hungarian Archives in danger at: )

In a nutshell, Canadian archivists wrote a letter to the Hungarian Ambassador to Canada, expressing concern over the Hungarian government’s decision to introduce legislation that would permit the removal and destruction of Hungarian communist secret police, interior ministry, and state security files currently held at the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security in Budapest. Removing these “irreplaceable documents would impoverish Hungary's archival heritage. It would undermine our ability to know and understand an important aspect Hungary's past. Preserving the Hungarian communist secret police, interior ministry, and state security files supports an accurate account of the past and ensures that collective amnesia does not prevail.”

The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) is, according to their letter, “a national professional organization that represents English-speaking archivists in Canada.” They assert, “archivists have a professional obligation to preserve authentic and reliable records for evidentiary and historical purposes.” As such, the ACA “strongly believe[s] that archives are the foundation of democracy, social justice, and social memory.”

Hungarians are our Finno-Ugric kin and suffered under communism just as any other Soviet occupied or puppet-controlled nation. Is the Hungarian government’s goal to destroy and remove archival material pertaining to the Soviet era possibly precedent setting? It must not be, for all archival material should be preserved, regardless of changes in technology or within the political and social systems.

Awareness is key. With the digitalization of data so that it may be accessed by computer it is possible that some material previously kept only in its original presentation may not be preserved. Newspapers, for instance, do not have the lifespan of leather-bound parchment books. Microfiche and microfilm still exist, but the supporting technology – readers and recorders – are hard to find, much less maintain. And what about film and celluloid? The advances in technology within the last decades mean that source material from, say, the first period of Baltic national independence needs to be transferred to modern formats. All this is expensive.

Émigré and refugee organizations were at the fore of archiving activities abroad. Much of this work was volunteer-based, and while some financial support was available, it was and remains a labour of love for many. Let us not have technological advances and costs overshadow the need to keep original material. Let us not have personal, political or monetary gain override the need to preserve any part of a nation’s collective memory. Once destroyed, it cannot be re-created.
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