Those of us who work in the field of knowledge and memory management ―librarians, archivists, documentalists, museologists, or any of the other labels we have been assigned in recent decades― have various kinds of inside jokes to define what we do.
One of them points out that we are the ones who talk to the dead ― the ones who chat with them and take care of their voices.
However laconic ―or creepy― such a statement may seem, the truth is that it is not too far off the mark. Our spaces, physical or digital, preserve the past. Or, to be more precise, what those who preceded us bequeathed to us in relation to that gone time. What they said, what they thought, what they saw, what they heard, what they dreamed and hated. The voices of the dead.
[And if, so they say, one of the few ways to survive the passage of time and death is the memory that remains of us, we, the managers of knowledge and memory, are a sort of "door to immortality". Which is another joke we use to define what we do. A bit grandiloquent, true, but a joke nonetheless].
Preserving all that memory of what was, all that gigantic and motley heritage, is not always easy. Based on my own experience, I would go so far as to say that it never is. Basically because such a heritage never reaches our hands in its entirety. It usually does so in a fragmented way, perforated on all sides, chewed by the fangs of an Oblivion that never forgives anything. Some scraps here, others there: shreds of what was once a complete history, sparks of fires that went out long ago.
The big problem is that the only possible interpreters of those remnants, the ones who could give meaning to those disjointed pieces, are no longer with us. Or they can't or don't want to remember.
And one finds oneself in front of a thousand, two thousand, five thousand pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle, without having the remotest idea of what the original image to be constructed with such tesserae should or could be like. With few exceptions, one does not always know where to start winding that tangled skein, so full of gaps and discontinuities, which is memory. One can guess the thousand stories encapsulated there, among those papers, those photos, those records and drawings. Reconstructing them is another matter. A very different one.
To make matters worse, one knows that this particular puzzle is connected to many other equally incomplete, equally fragmented ones. And one suspects the links, and hallucinates with the implications of certain invisible and intangible relationships, and fantasizes about the thousand and one possibilities that arise from all those possible interactions. But one doesn't see them.
It's frustrating. It's exasperating. And it's exciting. Step by step, paper by paper, slide by slide, one begins to let the voices of those "dead people" sound. Reading the notes in the margins of notebooks, piecing together bits of drawings, checking for matches in the dates of letters or in the landscapes that appear in the background of photographs, the pieces begin to connect. Slowly.
The tesserae start to fit together. And the story appears. Not always, of course: there are unrecoverable pasts. But, most of the time, the miracle happens.
It also happens that one puts together the whole structure but one piece is missing: what the old masons called "the keystone of the arch", that stone that was in the center of the vault and that, with its sole, wedge-shaped presence, held the whole together. A piece that gave meaning and coherence to everything else.
When, back in 2018, I faced the history of the Charles Darwin Foundation during its first decade of existence (the 1960s) I found myself in front of a puzzle whose box was missing half of the pieces. A hellish ordeal for any self-respecting librarian. I am talking about working with documentary remains from a time when there was not the slightest hint of a "historical archiving policy" at the CDF. Little was kept in the institution: if anything remained, it survived in the personal collections and in the oral tradition of the different workers who passed through the Charles Darwin Station.
Little by little, and with a patience of which I would never have believed myself capable, I rescued the scraps I needed to reconstruct those days of yesteryear. I asked here and there, and insistently appealed to the fugitive memory of the few survivors of that foundational era.
Little by little, I said, I reconstructed that initial scenario. But I was missing a fragment. One as small as it was essential.
And I missed it until a couple of months ago, when it occurred to me to open one of the many closed and non-revised boxes that we keep in the CDF Archive. I swear by all my ancestors that it was pure chance: it was a box without labels, without identification, like so many others. Inside I found the photographic archive of Raymond Lévêque, the first director of the Darwin Station. The one who began to build it.
It was that piece that helped me to adjust the puzzle, to dialogue with all those characters ―Ecuadorian settlers, gringo scientists, visitors from other horizons― and to try to understand what happened, and how, and why. And, above all, what for.
Now I am left with the reconstruction of another five decades of institutional history and social memory of the Galapagos. Tens and tens of thousands of documents ―I am not exaggerating, it is literal― waiting to be painstakingly assembled to recount the events of the past and, in doing so, help us understand why we are where we are and where we should be heading to.
I know: it will be frustrating. And exasperating. But, above all, it will be fascinating. Searching for a missing thread, finding by surprise a fragment that solves an enigma, learning about the intricacies of an investigation or the internal struggles for power, knowing about the pleasures and sorrows… Talking to those "dead" who, if you think about it, are not so dead ― just to make their work and their struggles live on.
It will be quite a task. Inevitable and necessary. Because, paraphrasing Mario Benedetti, those of us who work in these tasks "cannot and do not want / to let memory turn to ashes".
[The photograph, from the Raymond Lévêque collection, shows construction work at the Charles Darwin Research Station on March 18, 1961].
Text & picture: Edgardo Civallero (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Publication date: 1 January 2023
Last update: 1 January 2023