A week ago, I wrote an article for Tweetspeak Poetry called “Poetry at Work: The Loss of Institutional Memory.” Institutional memory, or what might be better described as personal understanding of organizational history, is not much prized these days. Organizations generally don’t concern themselves with the past; instead, they focus on the future – the next new program, the next quarterly earnings report, the next new product or service to launch.
In some cases, this disregard for institutional memory can be dangerous. If you don’t know why something failed in the past, you’re likely to make the same mistakes all over again, with the same result. I noted in the article that my own organization is experiencing the third iteration of a significant problem, and for the exact same reasons it experienced the first two problems.
But time passes, lessons are forgotten, people retire, and the same mistakes happen all over again.
I was reminded of all this in a powerfully personal way this week. On Monday, I received an email from a friend who had retired, telling me that a former colleague was in intensive care at a local hospital and not expected to survive the week. She had retired several years ago, and I knew she had been ailing for some time. But I hadn’t seen her in over a year, although we did keep in touch by email.
This lady had often helped me in my work. For several years, she reported to me, because what she did wasn’t of much interest to the organization but it was something you just didn’t stop doing. The organization assigned it a sort of begrudged value – it took up space, it required resources, and surely both the space and resources could be put to better value.
What she did was the organization’s archives, which stretched back a century. It was like an incredible attic in your grandmother’s house, filled with documents, trunks and old furniture, paintings, old photographs and books. It was a treasure chest of memory. And presiding over it all with cheerfulness and authority was my friend and colleague.
No one – no one – knew more about the organization’s history than she did. Personal stories about the founder and his family; the foibles of CEOs; how one CEO wrote the organization’s annual report for decades; the history of businesses bought, sold, and created; the longtime friendship between one CEO and Walt Disney (they both made movies); product successes and product failures – she knew it all. And happily shared all of it with people like me.
The darkest hour in the history of the corporate archives happened in July of 1997. The company was splitting into two separate organizations, rather like an unfriendly divorce. I landed in the part that was being cast off. One morning that July, my archivist called me in near hysteria. The corporate archives were being thrown out in the garbage.
What had happened was straightforward: the archives had been placed under the control of someone with a subsidiary in another city, who had no connection to the company or its history. Someone else decided they wanted the space occupied by the archives. The approval was rather casually given: take the space, but what you do with the archives is your decision. So into the garbage they were to go, starting with the photographs.
I called the company’s vice chairman. I had written a lot of speeches for him over the years, and I had never once asked for any favor. He was in a meeting, his secretary said, and I asked her to interrupt it, telling her what was happening. He was on the phone in about 15 seconds, and said he would stop the destruction.
I hurried over to the building where the archives were kept, a large structure in the research center that also included the library, a small cafeteria, and research labs. I didn’t go to the archives. Instead, I went to the large trash dumpster behind the building, next to the loading dock. In my corporate business suit, I climbed into the dumpster and began gathering up the photographs, scattered in files along with everything else in the dumpster. If I remember correctly, the dumpster was a 20-by-20-foot square. The individual responsible for the near-destruction was on the loading dock, nearly hysterical himself; he had been personally called by the angry vice chairman. I told him to go away before he did any more damage.
I handed batches of photos up to the archivist, who had calmed down but was still visibly upset. As I handed each batch to her, she placed them in one of several carts to transport back to the archives. We worked steadily for about an hour, until we were confident we had everything.
Afterward, the vice chairman directed that the company protect the archives from itself. He knew this could happen again. A contract was arranged with a local university to manage them at their location. The furniture, paintings and other physical artifacts were assigned to the company being spun off (where I worked).
That incident cemented my friendship with the archivist for life.
The email about her physical state told me to see her on Wednesday, because they would likely be removing her from life support on Wednesday night. I arrived right at noon, and walked into the middle of family grief. She had died 15 minutes before I arrived. Standing at the door of the hospital room, I totally lost my composure. I handed her daughter the card I brought, and quickly walked back to the elevator.
As I stepped into the elevator, I heard my name called; it was my friend’s husband, with my card in his hand. We talked; he said she often told the story of me in the dumpster, and how it had meant more to her than just about anything else she had experienced in her career. I lost it again, right in front of the elevator.
She was one of the last “keepers” of the company’s history. Lots of retirees have personal histories; only a handful kept the corporate history: the guy who did trade shows; the manager of the old photography studio; an elderly attorney; the secretary for the company’s founder; my friend who ran the archives; and one other. My friend was the second-to-last left; the others had all died some years past. And now she’s gone, and so much knowledge of the history with her.
The one left is me.
Photographs by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.