Life Lessons from the Library: Memory is a Tricky Thing!

`The horror of that moment,’ the King went on, `I shall never, never forget!’
`You will, though,’ the Queen said, `if you don’t make a memorandum of it.’

The White Queen in Through the Looking Glass certainly has a point. It is very easy to forget things, even things that were quite momentous at the time. But what is also easy, but less obvious, is modifying the past without being aware of it.

Once my parents were talking about the fact that everyone knew where they were on the day JFK was assassinated. My father told a story about where he was. My mother could barely wait until he finished. “You were not. I told you about it when you came home from work.”  Granted, my mother would not win a tact contest; still, it does show  how tricky memory can be. I didn’t hang around to find out who had the correct memory on that one.

Just recently, I was talking with a couple of friends who were remembering an incident and a third person’s involvement in that incident. They were quite certain of how the person had responded and behaved. They could have taken a lie detector test and passed with flying colors. There was only one problem: They were wrong. I was also present at the time, and while their broad strokes were basically correct, they had changed some details to fit in with their new negative perception of our former friend. They had not done it intentionally to smear his character. It’s just how memory is. It’s a slippery beast that helps us confirm our beliefs about people.

In the library, since we are responsible for giving accurate information, we try hard to double-check our facts, even facts that we are sure of. Although I have written more than my share of papers, I never answer a citation question without checking the English Department’s handbook or the MLA style book.  I try to get the staff to double-check room or phone numbers because faculty do change offices and departments occasionally move. And people, in general, would rather wait a minute for correct information than have instant wrong information.

It is something that maybe we should do in all aspects of our life. Sure, we usually can’t go back and double-check the past. But when we remember something, especially something that upsets or angers us, maybe we should take a minute to assess how much of it really happened and how much of it  we have overlaid with emotions.

And knowing how tricky memory can be, maybe we should be more willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

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