Several weeks ago, someone came into the office of The Dickinsonian with a question which struck me as odd. She wanted to know about past incidents of bias on campus, and asked if we could point her towards some information. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this request. I wasn’t sure if the archives would have much usable information, and what she was looking for was too recent for the archives to be of much use. What I did was offered her news coverage we had done. I pulled articles on the Sombrero incident now so distant none of us were on campus when it occurred, the Halloween incident from two years ago, and our coverage of the racist notes on a student’s door last year. It was her thanking me as she left the office which got me thinking however. Many of these incidents are still fresh enough in our memories, but as the composition of the community changes over the years, that collective memory fades. Once there is no one around who remembers an event, it becomes easy to forget about it entirely.
I take it for granted that all of us are aware of Armstrong Hall. Some of us may have lived in it our first year, others may have simply visited. How many of us, however, are aware of Phi Kappa Sigma? Phi Kappa Sigma was the first fraternity to exist at the college, chartered in 1854. When the Quads were built, every now residence hall there housed a fraternity, with Phi Kappa Sigma housed in what is now Armstrong. Their neighbors in Atwater were Alpha Chi Rho. The memories of these organizations appear all but gone. Phi Kappa Sigma was unrecognized by the college in 2009, Alpha Chi Rho in 1989. I will again take it for granted that a decreasing number of people at the college were here before these dates, none of them students. Walking the halls of Atwater or Armstrong, one could hardly infer the buildings once housed fraternities, let alone any particular one. Over time, memories fade, people move away, and the community constantly renews itself with new members. The memories of both good and bad events are contingent on those who hold those memories not only to the extent that they remain available, but also that as the community renews itself, new individuals take up an interest in knowing the stories of the past.
Record keeping allows for the knowledge of the community to be preserved without any particular individual actively aware of history. The Dickinsonian has its past issues preserved not only in the minds of the writers, but also in the physical print of the paper itself. Many of these papers will be lost by one method or another, but the archives keep a copy, as do we in the office. This is only one example of the importance of record keeping. However, this was reliant on one of the editors knowing that the incidents had occurred, previous editors publishing on the events, and that current editor thinking to check our records for coverage. It is not sufficient then simply for these records to be kept, but that people retain enough interest in these things that, even if they cannot recount every detail, directions can be given to those interested when doing their own research.
Without these records, the historical memory of the community is liable to falter and fade. When this occurs, not only are the good deeds of individuals forgotten, but also the bad. The importance of record keeping then is not only the keeping of the collective memory, and its expansion by not allowing old memories to be forgotten, while admitting new ones. The collective consciousness is immeasurably influenced by the collective memory, and when the collective memory is faulty, either because affairs are forgotten or misremembered, the collective consciousness may be misled either by intention, or simply because we lack a proper understanding of the past. It is this that makes record keeping so essential to communities. That it is our records which allow us to remain intimately aware of our past, grant us the ability to recognize patterns, spot when things are not right, and hold others accountable. Without records, we are liable to forget, but with them, we retain the ability to construct a clear narrative, and bring things into the light.