Working the Past – Review

Maintaining a useable past takes work. It is as much work as maintaining a useable building, though very different work, using very different tools. The work of this book has been to demonstrate the existence and nature of this work – mundane, daily, and utterly essential to any group that considers it has an identity.

So concludes Charlotte Linde in Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory. This book is based on a study of institutional memory at a US-based insurance company. However, it is written by a researcher who has delved deep into the subject, so it is much more than just an anecdotal study.

There are important patterns both in the ways stories are reproduced and the ways they are changed, and the patterns observed in an insurance company can inform us about the ways in which very different collectivities work their past.

I have become professionally interested in institutional memory, story-telling and decision memory, as well as how these are connected to knowledge management and how knowledge-sharing frameworks can be developed. Institutional memory becomes very important when organizations are going through significant change, such as changing market conditions or major growth.

… we came to MidWest at a time of change … we had a brief opportunity to see the earlier form of organization before the changes … times of change are rich in occasions when the past is invoked. The past is used to reaffirm a sense of identity, to provide a ground from which to assess the effect and meaning of changes, and to provide a basis for critique of changes … And as people talk about change, they tell stories about this past to understand the present and predict the future.

In this book I learned about the importance of “occasions” in sharing institutional memory. “Without the occasion, the story rarely or never gets told”; Linde writes. Later, she concludes; “A story not having a proper occasion on which it can or must be told exists in an archive if it exists at all. An institution not having a range of occasions for telling stories is not likely to be working its past very hard.” My own experience in the military reflects many different occasions, from formal to very relaxed, in which to share stories.

While any company’s institutional memory should be what Linde refers to as an open canon, or one that has new stories added over time, there is still a place for an official version of certain stories. An example is the first authorized history of MidWest, published in 1955 and still printed for internal use. Linde at first wondered if the book was more for show than use.

I began to wonder whether the book was displayed as a talisman of loyalty or whether it really was read. When I mused on this question to a district manager I had come to know, she assured me that she used it all the time. I asked what she used it for. Her answer was that she “mined it for stories” for speeches, since she had come to the company relatively recently, and that she didn’t know the history “by blood”, that is, she did not come from a MidWest family, and had joined MidWest in the middle of her career.

working the past - lindeThe book is comprehensive in both its treatment of the situation at MidWest and its delving into the foundational concepts of institutional memory. There is a chapter on “paradigmatic narrative”, another on telling one’s story within a textual community, and one dedicated to “noisy silences” or stories that are not told. This book is for those who want to dig deep into what institutional memory is about and the many ways it can be supported. While written more for sociologists, there is much here for any large organization and those working in knowledge management, narrative, or storytelling.