Archiving the Past for the Future

Are you throwing away history? How you perceive yourself is determined by what you remember. How society remembers itself is through histories. Histories are written based on the evidence the past leaves for the future.

If our eyes and ears were a video camera, each day we take in several terabytes of information, yet we remember very little. Our brains decide to throw away most of our sensory input. How many commutes to work or school can you remember? There are many theories as to how we select what to save, but I don’t science has found a consensus yet. We can’t recall the past with TiVo-like utility. Our memories are vague impressions squirreled away inside our heads. Most people don’t have photographic memories, much less video-graphic. This is also true of historians, they only have tiny incomplete fragments of the past.

Now that we’re entering into the Marie Kondo phase of our lives, many of us are throwing away the physical evidence of what we’ve done at the same time many of us have become interested genealogy. If you’ve ever watched Finding Your Roots you know how important physical records are for reconstructing the past. What’s true for individuals is even truer for society.

My father died when I was 18, and I’ve often wished I had more evidence of his life to figure out who he was. I don’t have that evidence, but I wonder if it exists elsewhere. I’ve also wanted more evidence of my own life to remember who I was. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading about world history, trying to put together a consistent memory of our past. Too much of history is opinion because we don’t have enough hard evidence.

The current decluttering mania teaches us to categorize our discards into three piles: Keep, Give Away or Sell, or Throw Away. I believe we should keep an eye out for a fourth category – Save for History. When we hold an object and ask ourselves, “Does it bring me joy?” we should also ask, “Could future historians use this?” The trouble is, what is of historical value, and who do we give it to?

Any document that connects people to events might be valuable. Of course, ticket stubs to a Bob Dylan concert might only help you remember where you were on a night in 1978. But what about a schedule of speeches for a conference? Or an old menu saved for sentimental reasons? Or a video of a family reunion? Or a catalog from an art exhibit? Anything that might help other people remember might be worthy to save.

We need to think about how we remember who we are as a society and what artifacts to save? I’m currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I’m amazed by how much information we have about people who lived over five hundred years ago. Few of us have that kind of information even if we wanted to write our own autobiographies. Evidently, people who get into genealogy learn what’s important to identify people connections. And anyone who has written up an event or documented a house for sale knows about the importance of supporting facts.

What evidence should we save today about our past to help people in the future understand us? I’ve acquired a new hobby of scanning old magazines and fanzines. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people digitizing popular culture and uploading it into libraries, and sites on the internet like Internet Archive. However, like our own minds, we have to decide what tiny bit is worth saving, and what massive amount of junk is not. We’re actually Marie Kondoising our culture every day.

The next time you have a box of junk to throw out, don’t just ask if each item gives you joy, but would it give a future historian joy too.

One kind of evidence I ache to have for my own personal history are photographs. I wish I had pictures of all my schools and classmates since kindergarten. I also wish I had photos of all the houses I’ve lived in, their yards, and of each room. My father was in the Air Force and we moved around so much that I can’t remember all the houses I lived in or the schools I attended. I wish I had evidence to recreate that knowledge. In other words, I wish I had documentation to support my memory. There’s a chance that other people photographed what I wanted. It’s a shame we don’t have a photograph database, especially one controlled by artificial intelligence with machine learning.

PBS - Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.Most of us do not have evidence that will matter to historians, but you never know. And even if we did, how do we pass it on? If you’re a famous person you can donate your papers to a library. One thing us ordinary folks can do is to share photographs with relatives, or anyone who is pictured in the photographs. I have some old school yearbooks that I’m going to scan and upload to the Internet Archive. Yearbooks are starting to show up there. I keep hoping yearbooks from schools I went to that I don’t have will show up. Classmates.com has yearbooks for a fee, and I use it, but I think this information should be public. Eventually, items in the Internet Archive, which hopes to save everything digitally, will be churned through by AI and data miners, and there’s no telling what kind of results will turn up. I highly recommend watching the PBS show Finding Your Roots to see how sleuthing personal histories work.

I’m also scanning and uploading old fanzines to Internet Archive. It’s a skill that takes a little work to acquire, but I like rescuing these old documents. I worked in a library while going to college, and one of my jobs was finding missing issues to make whole volumes to bind. I’d send snail mail requests around the world to track down lost/stolen issues. Now, I get on eBay to look for missing issues to scan.

I haven’t gotten into genealogy yet, but I’ve thought about getting into that hobby just learn what kinds of things people save. I’m just getting into this idea of what to save for history. I know I don’t have items for big history, but I wonder if I have little clues that other people want for their small histories.

JWH

8 thoughts on “Archiving the Past for the Future”

  1. From the “Finding Your Roots” cover picture, historians might gather that our century was untroubled and constantly smiling. As a trained historian, before I became an intelligence analyst, I treasure original factual and fictional accounts written at the time of events, e.g., from “Xenophon” to “Arabian Nights” to “Huckleberry Finn.” Today I despair at the efforts to misrepresent all narratives for political or PC purposes, and to rewrite or erase history and literature that does not justify desired ends.

    1. I don’t think we should rewrite history either. We need to remember the nastiness of our past so we can become better people.

      Finding Your Roots is a personal view of history, and quite often the discoveries they make surprise their guests.

  2. How very interesting. I am reading Leonardo also – on my iPad via Scribd – thank you for your recent recommendation. What a fascinating human being. At the same time, I am reading the new biography of Churchill – an equally fascinating individual, by Andrew Roberts – via a real book, heavy and awkward – so I read one or the other depending on time of day – iPad at night in bed and the Churchill bio sitting by the window with natural light in the daytime.

    I revere historians. To an American student in 1953, Churchill said “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” And all the secrets of human nature as well.

  3. I donated 30,000 paperbacks and pulp magazines to the State University of New York at Buffalo back in 1995. Since then I’ve donated more SF paperbacks. You can check out what SUNY at Buffalo has done with my books here: https://library.buffalo.edu/specialcollections/rarebooks/kelley/

    I still have thousands of books. I don’t want to leave my kids with the problem of disposing of my books that take up most of my basement (plus the thousands of music CDs). Marie Kondo would faint at the sight of my bulging shelves (Kondo believes you should only have 30 books!). I just want to find my books a Good Home.

    1. You have been very lucky and found a fantastic home for your collection. I’ve heard and read about other big collectors trying to get their collection into a library and failing. I’ve also heard and read about big collectors trying to sell their collections whole and failing, so they ended up at auctions or used book dealers, getting split apart.

      My collection of books is rather trivial. I have about 750 printed books, but only a few of them are of interest to collectors. I also have over 2000 digital books, either ebook or audio. I also have thousands of old SF magazines as digital CBR scans.

      I’ve gotten rid of several LP collections over my lifetime. And I’ve culled my CD collection down to about 700 of my favorites, but I seldom play them, so I’ve been thinking about getting rid of them too. But still not sure. I worry that Spotify and other streaming music services will fail.

  4. Jim, my son and daughter make fun of my CD collection, but like you I’m skeptical about Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, etc. Recently SEARS closed stores here. J. C. PENNY is on life-support. We can’t count on institutions to last. I’d rather hedge my bets with something physical like printed books and music CDs.

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