When the Library of Alexandria burned, it is said even the most illiterate denizens of the Classical World mourned. This scriptorium of tens — and perhaps hundreds-of-thousands of scrolls was considered to be the greatest repository of learning then in existence and was once open to everyone or at least all the scholars of the world, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or religion.

In the centuries before the LOA and a few other less impressive repositories of learning, the passing on of learning was done orally. Master storytellers would memorize the great literature of their intellectual ancestors and carry it forward. But as the synergy of academic pursuits swelled such offering, this became untenable and writing escaped the dingy half of the bookkeepers onto scrolls which could then be aggregated for those with the academic ability to make use of them.

In this way, the notion of institutional memory escaped, at least in part, the severe, unyielding restrictions set by the mortality of the storyteller.

But not entirely. It is one thing to have a mass of scrolls piled to the rafters or endless rows of shelves groaning beneath the weight of their books, quite another to have actually read them. And even if you did scrupulously read them all, quite another to understand the actual experience of the author or the wisdom cultivated therein. One can read endlessly of World War II but only the combatant really knows what it was like.

Institutional memory is so valuable that its loss is painful, visceral. Thus, when Neil Putnam shared with me his intent to not run again for the Mitchell School Board my heart sank a bit. Seven terms, 21 years, endless motions, our share of controversies and endless laughs would be rolled into the banal realities and unfortunate passive voice of school board minutes, fastened into the official book, and dropped into the cabinet that is the dusty memory bank of this 141 year old school district.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

When an issue arises, it is incredibly valuable to have someone at hand who recalls the last time it happened and how we dealt with it. Without that person, we are the institutional equivalent of the person who has lost his long-term memory. Greeting people he has known his whole life as new acquaintances, wondering why he isn’t hungry as he can’t recall having dined, believing what he is told by others simply because he has no alternative. What you’ve done doesn’t tie your hands but it does enlighten your decision.

Which is not to say that new blood and new ideas aren’t also necessary. They are and thus a mix of both is ideal. Neil has provided much of that long-term memory end for the Board for about the last decade. His loss is our loss.

It is and not just because of institutional memory. It is also a loss because of Neil’s performance as a board member. Neil is the thoughtful thinker, the person who carefully considers all sides of an issue before casting his vote. He is also the person unafraid to take on the big projects even when he knows they may bring controversy. We need a new Longfellow? Let’s pursue it. Finances are such that an opt out is critical?

Sounds like a tough thing to pass but if it is important for the educational opportunities our kids will receive, then make it so. Neil is also scrupulously honest. When that same opt out was passed, he and the Board as a whole promised that we would collect opt out dollars only when we actually needed them in order to avoid program cuts. He kept that word for two decades. Finally Neil is a worker. He served not only on our school board but the board of the associated Schools Boards of South Dakota and committees for the National School Board Association as well. When more needed to be done, Neil did it.

OK, OK, Neil Putnam’s decision not to run for school board again is not the epistemological equivalent of the burning of the Library of Alexandria. But for this small piece of the world, there does seem to be the scent of smoke in the air.