Cultural memory in the age of mass digitization

Nanna Bonde-Thylstrup, University of Copenhagen

This talk explored the impact of mass digitization on the concept and practices of cultural memory in institutional settings. Museums, libraries and other archival sites have historically been conceived as sites of history, containing historical records that can be consulted to understand our past and project our future. As such they have been constituted as ‘objective’ realms of knowledge. The 20th century, however, saw an increased interest in the subjective aspects of history, that is, in collective and cultural memory. This shift in perspective also implied a general semantic shift in the professional and political discourse on repositories of public knowledge such as libraries, archives, museums and galleries; they were now no longer addressed as historical institutions, but rather framed as ‘memory institutions’.

The semantic shift from history to memory also implies a methodological shift from objective practices to subjective ditto: historians build archives, whereas memory studies construct archives in specific contexts. Questions no longer revolve primarily around ‘what happened?’ but rather ‘what do we remember?’, and focus change accordingly from notions of truth, source criticism and sobriety to the use of things and the emotions attached to the use history.

In recent years the correlated forces of globalization, commodification, and digitization have challenged this common bordering of cultural memory, giving rise to new memory practices and territories that change the conditions for the establishment of stable life contexts.

In sum this talk addressed some of the ways in which mass digitization affects the raison d’etre of cultural memory institutions in conceptual, political and technological terms, focusing on two significant mass digitization programmes Europeana and Google Books. It argued that mass digitization has become a global cultural political project. It offered an in-depth examination of the early beginnings of mass digitized archives and how they related and constructed cultural memory. It suggested a new approach to the study of digital cultural memory archives, proposing to understand mass digitization not as neutral technical processes, but rather as distinct subpolitical processes that build new kinds of archives and new ways of interacting with these archives. And it briefly outlined a critical theoretical framework for understanding the new archival apparatuses and the politics and memory dynamics they give rise to.