I know several people who put a lot of stock in the power of coincidence. When conversations, articles and events line up like messengers, all with the same telegram, at your door, something is trying to get through. In my world, over the last few days, there’s been a great convergence of messages stamped: “Memory.”
Every semester, several City employees visit with students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in a computer-assisted reporting class. This prepares them to find and manipulate public databases to create stories that otherwise lie hidden in spreadsheets. We then experience waves of requests for public records as students complete their assignments.
I suggest to students that they’re trying to extract bits of the City’s official, public memory built up over almost 200 years. This memory is organic, residing not in a central, controlling, well-ordered data brain, but (literally) everywhere:
- Paper files at our sites or in remote storage;
- Electronic files, clouds, networks, servers and digital messages sent, received or still adrift;
- Libraries, museums and personal collections;
- Newspapers and publications;
- Our websites and others;
- In the living perceptions of every current and former employee, every person who has experience with us (even if second hand); and
- In the records of every other agency, office, vendor and entity with which we’ve done business.
When you consider the geographic images that satellites churn out, our public memory approaches the inter-galactic.
Memories, the article says, don’t live as single, complete events in one spot in the brain. Instead they exist as fragments of information, stored in different parts of our mind. (see City memory, above) False memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, and we become convinced they are real.
Many of us need look no further than our immediate families for evidence of this. My husband and I frequently remember the same event differently. Annoyingly, he tends to be right.
Oral historian Jeff Corrigan, with the State Historical Society of Missouri, knows that our personal memories are at risk. People don’t write…really write…anymore! Historians rely on personal letters, diaries and journals for first-hand accounts of experiences. What was it like to fight a war…survive the depression…witness a tragedy or celebration? We’ve converted our memory to tweets and posts which don’t last forever.
Jeff is practical, rather than judgmental about this shift. He’s preserving oral histories with audio recordings which can be transcribed, archived, preserved and also used in modern media.
In advance of City Council elections, we invite candidates to a half-day orientation on local government structure, services and issues. At our most recent session, we heard that citizens were very concerned about transparency at City Hall. We feel as if we cover the community with information, but what are we missing?
I can’t help but link this concern to memory. A lot of our public memory is online, but maybe people don’t know that, or don’t go there or don’t feel comfortable visiting our website. Maybe there’s too much time between starting to talk about a local problem and finally deciding what to do. Maybe the City’s voice is trusted less than that of friends and family. If transparency is the ability to see all the connections between start and finish, surely it requires a reliable, accurate memory. I have no good answers here.
This is the last coincidence. Google leader Vint Cerf predicts a “forgotten century” of digital content as our viewers go defunct. And we thought we were doing a public service by putting things online.
Memory, I believe, is how we identify ourselves. It is the heart of all relationships, public and private. Our memory is reliable enough to get us through each day while it continually, inevitably changes. It deserves our protection and stewardship.
Toni Messina is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.