Monday, February 19, 2018

No documents, no history

Last week was Archives Awareness week in T&T. Our National Archives, sometimes called the nation’s best kept secret, organised several activities to raise public knowledge about, and interest in, the nation’s documentary heritage.

As I used to tell my UWI students in the first-year course Introduction to History, “No documents, no history”. For most historians, documents—written materials—form the mainstream, the bulk, of their sources. And our National Archives conserve and manage the records created by the colonial and national governments—government or official records being the largest category of surviving documentary sources nearly everywhere.

There’s not a lot we can be grateful to the colonial powers for, but here’s one: the European empires were good record keepers, at least over the last 200 years. The Brits were no exception and that’s why we have so much here in the Archives relating to our period as a British colony (1797-1962).

All kinds of documents may be of value to students of history, decades or centuries after the records were created for administrative and other reasons. To take one example: in the 1930s and 1940s the colonial government decided it should censor calypsoes before they were publicly performed. The result was files in the Colonial Secretary’s office containing copies of lyrics submitted for censorship, comments by the civil servants, and correspondence from singers and recording companies. These records were an important source for historians of calypso and popular culture in this period, such as Gordon Rohlehr.

It’s the responsibility of the Archives to manage historical and recent government records, to decide what to keep and what to destroy—for not every bit of paper generated by a government office can or should be kept. It must organise the materials so that users can find them, and repair and conserve fragile or damaged documents like our 19th century newspapers. This is absolutely vital work. If it’s not done properly, students and scholars won’t be able to research and write the national story.

But the Archives can’t do it alone. The International Archives Council recently declared that archives all over the world must safeguard and contribute to individual and community memory. A country’s National Archives is responsible for government or official records, but there are so many other kinds of historical sources that are just as important.

Museums are also institutions which keep and display evidence of the past, generally objects and things rather than documents. In addition to our National Museum, we need to support a range of smaller and specialist museums, some of which were created and are run through private initiative, like the Indo-Caribbean Museum, the Military Museum in Chaguaramas, the Angostura Museum, the Police Museum, the still in formation Sugar Heritage Museum.

We have two important libraries which acquire and safeguard important sources of our past, not just published books and journals, but many different kinds of manuscripts, papers, works of art, maps and so on. These are the Heritage Library of National Library and Information System (Nalis), the country’s official legal deposit library, and the UWI Library.

In fact, institutions of all kinds should make it their business to document their past and keep those records safe, making them available to researchers wherever possible. I’m thinking of religious bodies, schools, political parties and trade unions, business firms and banks, NGOs. The good news is that many such bodies do try.

The Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian churches have archives, for instance, so does OWTU. Some long established business firms have kept records and commissioned histories, like Neal & Massy and ANSA McAL, and the major banks.

And, if we are to safeguard and build up community and individual memory, then individuals and communities must share in the responsibility of documenting and preserving the memory of our past.

Oral records are so important; we can all interview older people in our family and community and create a digital and paper record of what they said about their lives and memories. School children can do this as part of their SBAs. Local cultural traditions must be documented in film and otherwise. Remember what Rubadiri Victor and his group keep saying: whole generations of “Elders”, skilled in traditional arts and crafts, are passing away without their knowledge and skills being documented and transmitted.

It’s not only governments which create records! Individuals write diaries, and memoirs or autobiographies, setting down their own memories and writing their own lives. We all have a responsibility to find out about any such documents by people in our own families and to keep them safe, maybe donating them to a library or archive. We may have inherited a box of family documents, letters or papers, or photo albums—all potential historical sources.

Researching the past of one’s family or ‘clan’ is a rewarding and important way to build up our knowledge of history. Shamshu Deen is our best known family history researcher but there are many others too. We can help to document the history of our local church, mosque or mandir, or of our school—often an anniversary stimulates research of this kind, with a resulting publication which itself then becomes a source for future researchers.

It’s our heritage which is at stake.