The role for yearbooks

A common American experience is the publication of the annual high-school yearbook, complete with photos of students and documentation of the football team's victories and defeats. But yearbooks also serve a role which may go unrecognized: They preserve the "rules" surrounding a school's traditions.

Because most students spend no more than four years in high school, they barely reach the stage where they've learned a set of traditions before they graduate and move on. Four years may seem like an eternity to the student, but in a world where "The Simpsons" has been on the air for 20 seasons, it's comparably just the blink of an eye.

By depositing their memories in a yearbook, though, students contribute to the record and evolution of their school's institutional memory. The human drive to do this may be stronger than we realize: Consider the Wikipedia entry for the BBC's nightly shipping forecast or the website of the Eastern Airlines Retirees Association and its related pilots' association. These websites contain lots of ephemera and cultural memories about institutions that people have, for whatever reason, cared about. But Wikipedia shouldn't be the only place where these memories are recorded.

An institution that stays around for the long term -- like a high school -- has to note what it has done on a regular basis, and an annual cycle makes as much sense as any other. This is not to say that a company or a municipality or a school must publish a yearbook. But the basic principle of appointing an historian and charging that historian with documenting some of the important changes and some of the ephemera of that institution on a regular (presumably annual) basis makes it at least somewhat likely that the culture of the organization will be preserved, even as individuals come and go.

If the culture is healthy and worthwhile, then a yearbook (or something similar) can serve to remind the people involved about what works. If the institution is slipping, then an annual review should help to reveal that as well. An institution has to be aware of and sensitive to its signs of vitality just like a person has to be similarly aware of his or her own physical well-being. Ignoring a serious and recurring pain doesn't make the diagnosis of the problem any better -- it just means that the patient has ignored a symptom and likely made it more difficult for the doctor to help.

An institution could certainly combine its cultural "yearbook" with its annual report, although the two serve unique functions. The annual report documents measurable changes, while the yearbook is mainly a cultural record. But both are valuable -- perhaps it's better said necessary -- to a strong institutional memory.

The Internet offers lots of tools for helping to record these cultural records, though it should not be relied upon unless the institution is also committed to building and maintaining (indefinitely) its own website. Wiki-type websites can be easy to establish, and they are helpful when people are geographically dispersed -- hence, we can use a site like Wikipedia to find out how "You Can Call Me Al" has been used by college marching bands from Washington to Florida -- but when people are closer together, it's most likely better to designate an individual historian (or a small committee of historians) with a designated role.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Brian Gongol published on August 12, 2009 3:52 PM.

Protecting and preserving the archives was the previous entry in this blog.

How much expertise per person? is the next entry in this blog.

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