Memoirs and Our Perception of History

I recently participated in a discussion focusing on the benefits, nature, and drawbacks of the memoir genre.  In the past decade the memoir genre has experienced a huge serge in popularity.  This serge has not been entirely smooth, controversies have surrounded many memoirs in recent years.  Perhaps, most famously James Frey’s A Mission Little Pieces was exposed as being a fictional fabrication after being promoted as a truthful memoir on a variety of media outlets. The controversy surrounding Frey’s use of fiction in a memoir is not a singular event, in April 2011 Greg Mortenson was sued for including potentially fabricated details in his memoir Three Cups of Tea and the content of many other memoirs has been questioned.

If nothing else these controversies tend to highlight how firmly the general public believes that literary works purported as truthful must adhere to a strict code of reality.  Based on this logic memoirs can be self serving, full of bias and pride but must not include excessive fabrications or stretching of the truth.  Memoirs present only one point of view and tend to present an edited view of a persons life — does this make them any less of a valid literary work? Or a valid personal history? The point is debatable, but I tend to think they
 are valid on both points, they just need to be treated with care and with an understanding of their nature.

This discussion of the nature of memoirs led to me thinking about the nature of established histories.  Archives and historical records can be just as biased as memoirs.  For example, correspondence that acts as a historical record or an archival source is often fraught with contention.  A written letter only tells a specific story, the one written on the page.  What the author left out, the reasoning for including particular references, and additional context can at times be inferred but can rarely be known with certainty. 

Similarly, ledgers, statistics and other quantifiable records are not always hundred percent truthful.  Look at wartime statistics, the number of enemy kills is often approximated or exaggerated to garner wartime support.  Granted, the fallibility of these statistics often comes to light at the conclusion of war, but 100% accurate numbers often don’t appear.  Another example of the fallibility of historical statistics can easily be found in the case of Residential School records.  Quarterly returns, the student lists submitted by school principals to Indian Affairs to gain a per student compensation rate, often included ‘errors’ which would result in the school gaining additional funding.  Students who had left the school or passed away were at times left on the official class list, gaining the school funding for a student who wasn’t in attendance.  Statistics are not always the ultimate historical source when looked at in isolation. 

Additionally, archives, museums and formal histories are not the be all and end all of history.  Selection procedures and display policies all impact what history is kept, recorded, and presented.  Visitors to a historic site are seeing a curated presentation of the past.  It is physically impossible to keep or display everything.  Researchers and the general public need to be aware that just because something isn’t prominently display or well represented in an archival collection, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen or impact historical events.  

Most records and perceptions of the past have some kind of inherent bias.  Personal correspondence, official business records, government records, etc may all contain underlying motives that aren’t apparent at first glance.  Contextual analysis and examining documents in an inclusive manner can help bring about the most representative truths from documents.  Looking at history from a variety of vantage points helps expose hidden aspects of the past and helps drive further historical research. 

Digitization and Holistic Approaches to Data Sets

Over the past two years I have spent a lot of time working with Residential School quarterly return reports.  These reports were completed four times a year by School principals and contain the names, admission date, ages and discharge information of the students who were in attendance at the school.  The set of returns we have is far from complete but they do act as one of the best documents for providing proof that an individual attended IRS.

The majority of the work I do with quarterly returns is dictated by reference requests from former students, staff, families, and communities looking to find information about a particular individual.  While processing one of these typical typical reference requests, I typically flip through a binder that contains all the quarterly returns for a school and pick out any references to a specific individual.  I would then scan or photocopy the relevant pages and send them to the interested individual.  Though this process involves the quarterly returns it never led to me considering the returns as a whole. 

A recent project I’ve worked on helped me take a more holistic approach to looking at some quarterly returns.  The returns are one of the most frequently accessed documents in the archive I work at and staff spend a considerable amount of time manually searching returns for relevant information.  The majority of the quarterly returns are handwritten and many of them are poor quality copies.

The handwritten nature of the returns means that using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to make the documents full text searchable isn’t possible.  But given the importance of these records and the frequency of access, creating a searchable transcribed version of the quarterly returns was seen as valuable. Currently, we have only undertaken making searchable the records for the schools that are accessed most frequently.

 Though time consuming, this task has not only increased access to the quarterly returns but provided some insight about the schools as a whole.  For example, the returns often indicate if a student is in the hospital or infirmary.  The process of transcribing and making these records has made it easier to track outbreaks of illness within the schools.  For example, at the schools in Spanish Ontario there were 28 boys sick in December 1943, which is almost 20% of the entire male student population.

Similarly, looking at the returns more holistically has also highlighted education trends within the school.  Often a trade or industry of study is listed for the boys school.  The most common trades include : farming, diary, carpentry, poultry, cooking, tailor and shoemaker.  It is now possible to group data by trade and determine which trades were more popular at particular periods. 

The transcription process has also illuminated the fallibility of these records.  One of the most common mistakes in the returns is misspelling of family names.  The transcription process highlighted how depending on who filed the return the spelling of a name could change (eg. Corbiere or Corbier or Coribiere).

Overall, the process of being able to access information and process requests more efficiently is always a great thing in my mind.  More importantly, this experience has highlighted the potential of records to provide contextual information when looked at holistically and contextually.  Considering the difficulties (eg. missing records) that many people working with residential school records come across, it is important to use the information that does exist to its fullest potential. 

Library and Archives Canada has compiled a guide to conducting Residential School research that might be useful to anyone beginning to work with IRS documents.

Battle of Documentation

Documentation provides a written account of procedures, practices, successes, failures, and countless other big and small details.  The benefits of documentation include preserving institutional memory, providing new employees with detailed explanations of work tasks, and avoiding personnel from reinventing the wheel.

 Even with all these wonderful benefits, documentation is often neglected in favour of more ‘important’ tasks.  This can result in a loss of information, incomplete records, and the reproduction of labour later on.  I actually really enjoy creating documentation.  I find creating workflows, policies, and best practices oddly relaxing – perhaps it’s the feeling that if I was to get hit by a bus tomorrow, someone would be able to pick up and understand the work I was doing.

My place of work currently uses a wiki to hold our documentation.  Using this communal space allows all staff to read, edit, and reference documentation when necessary.  Since our documentation is all online, staff can access it regardless of where they are working from.  The wiki also automatically tracks changes made to content,Initially a few staff members were reluctant to learn wiki markup, but with some gentle encouragement it became clear that even staff who aren’t so tech savvy could learn with time.

In past positions I’ve used word documents for documentation.  This is probably my least preferred method of documentation.  You end up with multitudes of different versions of the same document and everything needs to be emailed or printed for other staff.  I do recommend that if you are using this method you come up with standard file naming procedures and footnote templates that denote version number.  Standardized naming helps make this slightly cumbersome method of documentation a bit easier to track.

Using Google Docs for documentation eliminates some of the email headaches caused by using Word.  Google Docs allows for items to be shared with multiple people, and can provide a collaborative editing space.

How does your work handle documentation? Do you have a preferred method of documentation?