Institutional Memory

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations, and by extension in entire cultures.


On Wednesday, I met a group of peers, friends who I work with in the South Carolina Department of Mental Health Telepsychiatry Program, in Columbia for a different kind of day. We met at the flagship mental health center for the system downtown, sitting around a conference table and chatting with the state medical director for mental health as well as an administrator friend of mine who has been with the Department for half a century. With those two people sat the Telepsychiatry director, my friend and colleague of over thirty-five years, me, and then four younger people, three of them just recently out of residency and fellowship training. 

We came together this week, in real time and face to face as opposed to meeting with each other via the video technology we’ve all gotten used to, to visit and tour physical sites, to talk about the state of affairs in our program, to hear stories about the history of these sites and programs, and to learn. To learn not only about how telepsychiatry works in South Carolina, but to learn about systems and their evolutions, about some of the original founding fathers of the state mental health system, about the old and new buildings themselves, and to get to know each other better as people. 

We came together to ride around in the already sweltering heat of a South Carolina summer, to get closer and listen to the whispers of the ghosts of the old buildings, to enjoy the air conditioned comfort of the brand new buildings, and to swap tall tales. A large part of what we did was pass along institutional memory.

As you see in the definition above, institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know how. It is something that is static but fluid at the same time, changing with the years but always building on its base. One of the key characteristics of IM is that it transcends individuals. Memories can be carried by official historians, who write things down, record things for posterity, or maintain computer files of a system’s information. It can also be carried by people like my friend Ed, who was able to drive the younger set among us on Wednesday around Columbia and describe buildings, programs, and people he had experienced personally. He was the only one of us that day who could relate personal conversations with William S. Hall himself, the first state director of mental health in SC and the man who our current child and adolescent inpatient facility is named for. 

Institutional memories may be recorded as above, but they may also be memorialized by placing plaques, planting trees, establishing scholarships or endowed academic chairs, or naming buildings or facilities. Anniversary celebrations are times when people, programs and milestones from the past may be recognized and revered. 

As we saw on our journey around the old state hospital grounds on Wednesday, beautiful buildings age and crumble. Programs change as knowledge about treatment changes through the decades. Founding fathers pass away. Even though this is true, the underpinnings, the original ideas that gave rise to those buildings and programs remain in the hearts and minds of those of us who come afterwards. It is our responsibility to pass along these institutional memories to our younger counterparts, so that the spirit of the founders never dies. 

Loss of these memories and ideals that form the bedrock of our current systems and programs,  whether it be family groups, professional groups, or governments, leads to unnecessary reinvention of core ideals, rediscovery of mission, or sometimes total reconstruction of the group. 

If you possess some of this history, knowledge, or expertise in your family, in your church, in your work group, or other peer groups, it is your obligation, no, it is your privilege, to pass this knowledge and history along to the generations following behind you. 

As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

We owe a great to debt to those who have come before. To let their hard-won knowledge and struggles lie fallow in the spring fields of history is to guarantee ourselves a poor harvest in the fall. 

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