Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
It used to be obvious. History happened. People's memories were true or false or some mixture of the two. The historian's task consisted of discovering what happened and shaping a coherent narrative. That job often involved exploring participants' memories of actual events. But historians regularly affirmed that contemporaneous, documentary (customarily written) evidence gave a truer, more faithful, or more accurate account of what actually happened than did individuals' fallible memories. Historians considered the written record produced at the time to be rich and immutable. Traditionally-trained historians did not dismiss or ignore personal memories, but they were on their guard to consider them malleable, fragile, and, worst of all in the positivist tradition, inaccurate.
We now know that this traditional view of the relationship between events, documents, memories and history is not so much obvious as it is simplistic. As Peter Burke, a historian who made uses of popular and collective memories, observed in 1989 “both history and memory are becoming increasingly problematic.” Where once remembering the past and writing about it were considered to be straightforward, transparent activities, now “neither memories nor histories seem objective any longer.” Historians and others engaged in recollecting the past consciously and unconsciously make judgments about what is important, and therefore worth recalling, and what is trivial. History and memory are both considered socially conditioned.