Friday, March 11, 2011

Archives of Tragedy

As I read the headlines about the tragic earthquake in Japan, I have the feeling today that I've been through this before.

Japan earthquake: Eyewitness accounts capture Japan's tsunami after earthquake

That moment of panic and concern that makes my head numb is familiar, but somehow my brain is losing track of the tragedies.

I remember one of the first of these events that I experienced, but I don't remember which one. It could have been when Reagan was shot, or when the hostages were kidnapped in Iran, or when Mt. St. Helen's mother told me that she wanted to shield me from disaster. She wanted the world to be a perfect place for me.

The world is not a perfect place, but I have a role in it that helps me deal with feelings of doom and destruction.

Describing the Archives related to the Pan Am bombing in Lockerbie, Syracuse University Director of Archives and Records Management stated, "You have to first divorce yourself from the mind-numbing tragedy of the event and look at it objectively to recognize that it needs to be documented—paperwork was generated right from the beginning."

So today, with sadness, I carefully check my feelings, write my own personal experiences, review the reports, and watch my fellow archivists around the globe gather the information that will help us evaluate this event in the future. Last year, the dramatic environmental tragedy in Haiti was documented by archivists wanting to retain contemporary information while others rushed to Haiti to save their past heritage. 2010 also brought flooding in Australia, mudslides in California, a massive earthquake in Chile, a volcano eruption in Iceland that lead to ash clouds over Europe, floods in Pakistan and more volcanic activity in Indonesia.

Archivists do what we do so that the memories survive and so that we can learn from past experience. How easy it is to forget the past, even the recent past, among waves of bad news. Yet, each event changes us and has the potential to make us better and stronger. People learn to build stronger buildings by examining those that have withstood tremors. We write disaster plans. Society evaluates its response. It evaluates eyewitness accounts and searches for documentation that confirms what we must do next time to alleviate devastation.

Our mothers could not provide us with a perfect world, but the roles that we choose can help us make a better one.

My thoughts go out to the victims of the Japan Tsunami. May the world community come together to honor and remember during this tragic time.

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