Unstable materials. Part 3: collective and cultural memory and oral history archives

Part 1 of “Unstable materials” deals with memory and oral history and Part 2 deals with individual and collective memory.

Oral history is a field of study that attempts to capture collective memory (as defined by J. Assman 2008; see Unstable materials. Part 2) – the stories shared between contemporaries. This position, between informal and formal record, has always been one of the attractions of oral history. For example, American oral history was initially rooted in archives and libraries, it was used as a means to “fill in the gaps” in existing text archives (Swain 2003, 140). Later, with the social history movement in the 1960s and 1970s oral history became a means of recovering the informal histories of ordinary people and everyday life. As these stories are captured and recorded, they become something else, something beyond collective memory; they are stories that have the potential to transition into cultural memory, where memories have an institutional context.

A. Assman argued that cultural memory could be made up of “canon” or “archive”. In this view, canon is seen as the cultural working memory: items are considered to have value, they endure in cultural memory and they are inter-generational (A. Assman 2008, 100). Because they are endure and are selective, the items in canon are seen as active.

Archive, in contrast, is passive:

“The archive…. can be described as a space that is located on the border between forgetting and remembering; its materials are preserved in a state of latency, in a space of intermediary storage (Zwischenspeicher). Thus, the institution of the archive is part of cultural memory in the passive dimension of preservation. It stores materials in the intermediary state of “no longer” and “not yet,” deprived of their old existence and waiting for a new one.” (A. Assman 2008, 103).

The boundary between canon and archive is dynamic: active cultural memory may recede (be forgotten about) and become passive, and the material in a historical archive can be accessed, reinterpreted, framed in a new context that gives it more active meaning. This analysis of the archive suggests that attempts to create stability (recording and archiving, therefore [perhaps] preserving) from the unstable materials of oral histories create a different kind of instability – one of meaning – as the meaning(s) of materials within archives are negotiated and re-contextualised.

Update (January 2015)
There is a follow-up post to “Unstable materials. Part  3”. See Part 4 and Part 5.



Assmann, A. (2008). Canon and archive, pp. 97 – 107 in Erll, A. and Nünning, A. (Eds.), Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Berlin, New York.

Assman, J. (2008). Communicative and cultural memory, pp. 109-118 in Eril, A. and Nünning, A. (Eds.), Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. Berlin, New York.

Swain, E. (2003). Oral History in the Archives: Its Documentary Role in the Twenty-First Century, The American Archivist, Vol. 66, No. 1, pp. 139-158. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40294221