Losing memory

I’ve often commented that archival work is a morbid profession. I think this every time I see work study students combing the obituaries for a notice to close out a clippings file or contact information for the next of kin as a collection lead.

Yet, there is another type of loss we deal with from time to time and it is a less than funny matter. Even though a person may not be nearing the end of their life, they may be nearing the end of their memory. Memory loss in a donor can be a confusing and difficult area for the archivist to navigate. Repeating conversations during each contact while knowing the donor is becoming less aware of the ultimate purpose of the discussion is an area we are not equipped through our training to handle. It also becomes an ethical issue. The archivist needs to be able to determine when a donor is no longer able to consent to the depositing of their materials and whether or not we should proceed with the acquisition until ownership and transfer issues are resolved.

I’d suggest we need to look to the literature on aging in the medical and social work fields to understand how we can best react to the changing needs of those we are trying to document.