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To Represent Us Truly: The Job and Context of Preserving the Cultural Record

From: Libraries & the Cultural Record
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2006
pp. 372-380 | 10.1353/lac.2006.0040

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The preservation of government records has been a natural activity of governments since the establishment of the first government. The earliest libraries were really archives of government documents, including the records of rituals that kings performed to assure the favor of the gods. Those documents made up the collections of the first libraries in Mesopotamia, dating to about 1500 bc, and of the classics on which Chinese civilization has rested for more than three thousand years. Historians rely on the government records preserved in those libraries and classical works—truly they are anthologies—to reconstruct the ancient cultures that produced them. For them, government records are cultural records. They still are, but when we moderns talk about the cultural record, we have in mind a much broader range of cultural productions than those produced by government, even a government that had religious as well as secular functions.

The word "culture" now calls forth notions of social class and function. We speak of political cultures, of the arts, of social practices, and of mentalités, to borrow a useful French term. We speak of high-, middle-, and low-brow culture. To a significant extent "culture" has become a weapon of mass distinctions of the social sort, and in the United States the reaction of some people to the word is a product of our egalitarianism and populism. The word bears the burden of what its user thinks of academics, of aesthetes, of modern artists and composers, of all those big-city folk who don't think life exists beyond the city limits—or, conversely, of blue-collar workers, rural folks, and Lawrence Welk and his musical descendants.

The William and Margaret Kilgarlin Center for Preservation of the Cultural Record must establish a meaning for the term culture in order to organize and carry out its work. Its definition of the word must sail above social and political value judgments and find a meaning that is broader than one that only denotes the arts or the peculiar mores of a people. How broad should the center's conception be? It is hard to find its boundaries and hard to define it.

To begin with, the cultural record is the sum of the things we put away and drop on the floor as we, the whole society, go through life. It is the detritus of our ways of life and our ways of thinking, of our knowledge and beliefs, and of our superstitions and nightmares. None of these descriptive words outline the shape of something we can grasp, because the cultural record, which contains our cultural heritage, seems to incorporate the whole, unabbreviated body of evidence of everything we produce.

Or, rather, it incorporates everything that has survived and that will survive by conscious and unconscious decision or by accident. In fact, for historians the cultural record appears always to have an accidental character. Our cultural record will be just what got saved because someone put it in a safe place or in a place that turned out to be safe because that place did not burn up or rot or get eaten by moths or get dissolved in floods. Yet as ordinary people not defined by our professions, we cannot accept that our understanding of our culture rests on such accidental processes. Scientists take reassurance from randomness because they can apply statistical techniques to random events that have great predictive authority. But in our everyday lives, in our ordinary activities, we want to know that our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as a society is not produced by accident or by statistics. None of us believes that what we and our compatriots think is an accident. When we turn our attention to ourselves and our culture in order to analyze ourselves, in order to find out how we deal with unusual events, or to confirm our good ideas or to change our bad ones, we want to be sure that the records we study are true to ourselves. They must represent us truly.

Our need for the cultural record does not arise only from our need to understand who we are. Often, we call on the record to solve practical problems...

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