There's a piece of unusual testimony, taken from a memoir written by Richard Hess. He's describing the Battle of Corregidor, which took place 61 years ago in the Philippines.
"They finally got us down to the beach. There was the white hospital ship a mile offshore. The Japanese started machine-gunning the LCI [landing craft infantry] as we were about half-loaded. Someone on the LCI said, 'Hurry up, let's go.' I was the last guy. Someone said, 'Let's go, that guy's dead.' They were about 150 feet away. I raised my good arm to let them know I wasn't dead."
The writing, though clipped and in need of editing, is riveting in its unsentimental portrayal of events.
That's the point of www.memoryarchive.org, an "encyclopedia of memories" written entirely by amateurs.
A few weeks ago, after NOW published my article defending the philosophy of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can edit, I got a message from Marshall Poe, a staff writer at the Atlantic Monthly, describing his new project archiving memoirs structured as a 'wiki' a website that anyone can edit.
"We usually think of history in terms of nations, wars and politics," writes Poe from his new home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "I want to capture significance wherever people found it in their personal experiences: families, schools, churches, towns or cities."
The big shift here is away from the grand narrative of the scholar and toward the personal narrative of the citizen. Think Anne Frank rather than Herodotus.
"People are interested in telling their own stories, and these stories are the stuff of history," he says. Wiki sites are an ideal way to bring these narratives before the public eye, a way of democratizing information. "I sometimes think of MemoryArchive as an 'oral history' project about everything, and without end."
In partnership with the city of Toronto, I'm involved in launching a Toronto chapter of MemoryArchive to coincide with next month's Humanitas festival ( http://humanitas.livewithculture.ca/ ). There is currently an upsurge of interest in our cultural history, from Spacing magazine to the heartening hagiographies of Jane Jacobs. The site is a perfect platform for browsing through interesting stories or archiving your own memories.
For the month of June, there will be a dedicated computer on the second floor of the Gladstone Hotel where people can post their memories as they chat over a beer in the Melody Bar. Or you can just go to MemoryArchive in the comfort of your home, click on the Enter New Memoir box and start typing. Users can also upload media files like MP3s, digital photos or scanned images, as long as no copyright violations are involved.
A laptop will also be available in an AirStream trailer called T. Ode that will be touring the city all month in order to capture the memories of Torontonians. Facilities in the trailer allow for audio recordings, run by the folks behind [murmur] ( www.murmurtoronto.ca ), a project that takes listeners on a tour of some of Toronto's best-loved neighbourhoods via audio tales. A selection of the stories will be broadcast on CBC Radio One as a part of a serial program called The Toronto Story throughout June.
This preservation of audio memoirs has also been occurring in the United States through a project called Story-Corp. In partnership with the Library of Congress and National Public Radio, the StoryCorp team has set up recording studios in various locations, including Grand Central Station, where participants can interview loved ones about their fondest memories, capturing personal histories in audio form for generations to come.
Audio files like these can be stored on the MemoryArchive site, but currently the memoirs are mostly written and are heavily skewed toward the 9/11 events. So far, only a couple of hits mention Toronto. So consider this your official invite: go to www.memoryarchive.org and write something that captures your recollections of the city in all its glory and squalor.