The importance of ‘memory institutions’

What you didn’t know about archives, and why they matter to you

Beth Downey Sawatzky | Manitoba Correspondent

Here is a question you do not hear every day: When was the last time you visited an archive? Not your email archive, a but a local bricks-and-mortar archive.

Many of us don’t really know what a physical archive is, or how it operates, let alone visit one on even a semi-regular basis. Even more remote is the possibility of having used one—well actually, that is not quite true. Indirectly, Average Jo(sephine) makes use of public archives in myriad ways nearly every day. Take it from Conrad Stoesz, professional archivist at Winnipeg’s Mennonite Heritage Centre and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies since 1999.

“Archival materials are some of the most basic, raw, malleable sources of information out there,” he says. “Books, many Internet websites, even whole libraries, are, to some degree, refined; someone has sifted and combed through materials, curated and combined them to produce a unified product on a certain topic. The base matter, however, comes from raw archival sources like court reports, meeting minutes, diaries, letters, photos, etc. Archives support all kinds of public and private work: environmental researchers, novelists, public or family historians, museum curators, government workers, medical researchers, lawyers, marketers, journalists, filmmakers, even churches. They all rely on archives.”

Stoesz describes the importance of archives in terms of social safeguards.

“Imagine a man with amnesia; he has no memory of the past, nothing to go on but the present,” he says. “If he cannot reflect on past experiences, he cannot learn from successes and mistakes to address what is in front of him now. He can glean information from the present, from facts, but he has no life experiences by which to weigh those facts. When we combine facts with lived experience, we call that wisdom. But memory is not only personal. To be most useful, it can and must be shared with others orally, visually, textually. The Book of Proverbs, for example, combines lived experience with facts to address situations. We call it part of the Bible’s Wisdom Literature. Here and now, we have even more ways of storing memory.”

Archives are uniquely important “memory institutions,” Stoesz says, because of the way they serve communities in times of duress or deprivation.

“Memory [or] knowledge are sometimes like water in a sponge; you do not see the water until the sponge is squeezed. In our society, when we are pressured to prove something, we turn to documents, and our main repositories for many documents are the archives. The contents of the [Heritage Centre] archive for instance, which dates back to 1933, would stand taller than the CN tower stacked up; over half a kilometre! For this reason, archives are foundational to our knowledge ecosystem.”

As Stoesz explains, the ability to retain and share memory within a faith community is integral to that group’s life and vitality as it moves into the future.

“In the church, history is necessarily theology,” he explains. “God is always telling his people to remember his faithfulness and his promises, passing them on to the next generation, meditate on the wisdom and experience of the past, recall the testimony of those who have gone before. We archivists collect a host of materials, never knowing what questions will be asked. In the past, women’s history was not an active research topic, but today it is. In the past, connections between aboriginals and Mennonites were not explored, but today they are. Thankfully, in the past, [Heritage Centre] archivists preserved source matter that can now be pored over to illuminate these topics.”

The Mennonite Heritage Centre is a ministry of Mennonite Church Canada, but more than half its funds are independently raised. Stoesz notes that, in light of the resolutions reached by the Future Directions Task Force, it is unclear where the archives will find a home in the future.

The online archives can be visited at archives.mhsc.ca. The archives and Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery are located at the south end of Canadian Mennonite University’s Shaftesbury campus in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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