Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History

Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History

Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History

Owning Memory: How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History

Synopsis

This book examines the relationships between archives, communities and collective memory through both the lens of a postcolonial society, the United States Virgin Islands, a former colony of Denmark, now a United States territory, and through an archival perspective on the relationship between communities and the creation of records. Because the historical records of the Virgin Islands reside primarily in Denmark and the United States, Virgin Islanders have had limited access to the primary sources of their history and this has affected both their ability to write their own history and to construct their collective memory.

But while a strong oral tradition, often in competition with the written tradition, influences the ways in which this community remembers, it also underlines the dilemma of interpreting the history of the colonized through the records of the colonizer. The story of the Virgin Islands and its search for its memory includes an exploration of how this community, through public commemorations and folk tradition has formed its memory to date, and the role that archives play in this process. Interwoven throughout is a broader analysis of the place of archives and archivists in helping communities find their history. The book is exceptionally well written and will appeal to historians, archivists and those interested in the Carribean.

Excerpt

The construction of community memory is a hotly debated issue as historians, social scientists, literary critics, and others grapple with increasingly contested and reinterpreted pasts. Rarely heard is the voice of the archivist into whose care the documents of the past are entrusted, even though it is the archives that contain many of the key pieces to this puzzle. Without historical documents can communities build reliable and durable memory? It was this question plus the strong conviction that archivists needed to define a role for themselves in the memory debates that fueled my interest in pursuing this study of the community memory of a postcolonial society, the United States Virgin Islands. My concern was driven by the recognition that behind the theoretical discussions lies the practical reality that ownership of history (and therefore memory) is often obtained through hard-fought battles with uncertain outcomes for small disenfranchised societies or groups.

In the mid-1970s I relocated to the U.S. Virgin Islands where I began working as a librarian in the territorial library system. We regularly received requests for material that we did not own—the historical records of the Virgin Islands. The bulk of these records were in the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen or in the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. The most that the library could provide, with the few microfilm copies of crucial records that had been purchased from these national institutions, was inadequate to answer all but superficial questions dealing with family history. We certainly could not satisfy the inquiries of researchers and historians pursuing the primary sources of Virgin Islands history. Fifteen years later, when I was the director of the Territorial Library and was attempting to establish an archive, I again confronted this hole in Virgin Islands history, this time as an archivist . . .

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