Subject Headings (Mis)Informing Memory

Margaret Peachy


In recent years the Library of Congress has reclassified the subject heading for the World War I civilian detention camp in Ruhleben, Germany from an internment camp to a concentration camp. While etymological research supports this change, its impact both on an emotional level, and on society’s collective memory is profound. The camp’s records, housed by Harvard Law School Library’s Special Collections, offer evidence that the term “concentration camp” may be misleading and reveal a camp that is considerably different than one might expect. I argue that the Library of Congress’s reclassification of Ruhleben from internment camp to concentration camp will influence how the camp is remembered by modern society.
Because library subject headings serve as a gateway for researchers to related resources, they have the power to shape people’s ideas about the resources being described, thus feeding into societal memory and chipping away at the objectivity of history. Archives are the repositories of primary sources, objects, unadulterated by interpretation. Yet, in our effort to describe archival holdings, information professionals need to interpret the items and therefore risk misrepresenting them to the public. In light of this, there is significant need for greater access to historical collections, allowing researchers the opportunity to effectively study these historical events, and to contribute to society’s collective memory.

The concept of collective memory is explored through an anthropological lens, connecting its role with cultural evolution. I look at how memory is created and informed, and the role archival collections can play in this process. Additionally, I explore the impact archivists have on memory and our understanding of historical events through their own descriptions.

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