The Maintenance of Memory
By Amy Willis
Listening to this week’s EconTalk episode, I felt a little like a kid in a candy store (and not just because of the reference to Ronald Reagan’s jelly beans). It also sparked some wanderlust…specifically, to go visit the archives of the Hoover Institution, about whose collections EconTalk host Russ Roberts chatted with archivist Eric Wakin.
But this week’s episode was about more than just the unique nature of the items housed in these archives…Lots of economic questions were raised simultaneously. So we’ll share a few, and we hope you’ll share your thoughts in return. Why are we as humans so attached to material reminders or our past? What is the role for archives, libraries, museums, etc. in maintaining our memory? How important is accessibility in the preservation of these memories?
1. While the archives generally do not sell the items they have, they still need to approximate the market value of them. In the absence of comparable prices, how do archivists such as Wakin do this? How accurate do you think they are? What of the gap Wakin notes between items’ financial and research value- to what extent can this be accounted for?2. What was the most interesting item (or collection of items) you heard about in the conversation, and why?
3. Wakin says his job is to preserve the items that come into his archives, but that ultimately it is to connect people with these items. What does he mean by this, and why is this sort of connection to history so important? How is this different from the function of libraries and museums toward this same end? (You might want to revisit this 2015 episode with Michael O’Hare on art museums for inspiration…)
4. As with pricing, questions of property rights were also critical in this conversation. In several of the examples Wakin shared, ownership rights to the items were insecure (the Lusitania wreck, Simone’s diaries, etc.). How are property rights determined and protected in the world of historical artifacts? Are they more or less secure than in other spheres? Does relevance to history impute a greater value, and therefore trump some forms of property rights?