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

Wanted: U.S. Genealogy Database with Photographs

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 1, 2017

Friday, I attended my Aunt Louise’s funeral. She was the last living aunt on my mother’s side, dying at 94. One thing I like about funerals is seeing the photographs family members bring to the funeral. My mother was one of five sisters, and all the cousins have photographs the other cousins don’t. Especially photos of our grandparents and great grandparents. Plus each aunt & uncle had pictures of nieces & nephews some cousins have never seen. After the funeral my cousin Reed called and asked me if I had any photographs of our grandfather holding a corn cob pipe. He had a memory of seeing such a picture, but didn’t know who owned it. I only had three photos of our grandfather in my digital collection, and none were with a pipe.

Littles
[My mother’s parents probably taken in the 1950s. I’ve lost count of all their descendants.]

This got me to thinking. There should be a national genealogy database where people can upload family photos. I inherited my mother’s family photos. I have no children. There’s a good chance if I died, my wife would just toss them out. I will try to give them to my nephew, or his daughters, but I’m not sure if young people want them. It would be a shame for such artifacts of history to disappear.

Imagine logging into the U.S. Genealogy Database at the Library of Congress (it doesn’t exist) and looking up your great grandparents. What if besides showing when they were born and died, the names and dates of their parents and children – it showed photographs and documents with annotations. This shouldn’t be an impossible task. I doubt there’s been more than 1-2 billion Americans to ever live. A big number, but not for computers. Photography didn’t exist for most of our country’s history, but for the part that did in the 19th and 20th centuries, most of those photos have already been lost. We should try to save what’s left, especially while the people live who can identify the subjects in the photos.

If everyone submitted photographs of people they can identify, soon we’d have a large enough database that an artificial intelligence could begin identifying unknown subjects. Historians could go to flea markets, buy a box of old photographs, upload them to the system, and in some cases, the AI could identify them. Wouldn’t that be far out?

What if you logged into the USGDB and searched on your parents and discovered their friends had submitted photographs with your folks in them you had never seen before. Wouldn’t that be cool too? What if everyone you ever went to school, dated, or worked with submitted photos that you were in, and the AI linked them to you? What if the AI found every class and school photo ever taken of you and your family. Just before my Aunt Louise died she identify three people in this photo. If my USGDB system existed, it might eventually identify everyone. [Double click for larger view.]

1927 photo_600dpi

Goodbye Aunt Louise. She’s the redhead posing with my mother Virginia. We will all miss you.

img321

JWH

Why Do We Fall In Love With The Past?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 28, 2016

We explore the past through infinite paths. The past no longer exists, yet we recreate “what was” with artifacts that continue to exist in the now. We use our neurons as virtual reality machines to remember. Most of us have a rough map of our own life, and hazier maps of our own culture. Beyond those maps lie the unknown territory of the collective past, which we are all deeply rooted. We have all shook hands with someone who shook hands with a 19th century person, who had shaken hands with someone from the 18th century. I am old enough to have shaken hands with many people born in the 19th century. Every history book we read weaves thousands of threads that link us to a past.

Have you ever contemplated how we build the past in our minds? As individuals we use memories. We talk to other people and use their memories. Novels, movies, songs, television shows, paintings – are fundamental ways of recalling the past. Art is recorded memories. Think of cave paintings, probably among our oldest memories. Slowly, education and scholarship evolved to organize the details of the past. Whether you’re studying math or The New Testament, you’re recreating the past. The discipline of history isn’t that old in the big scheme of things. In recent times we have journalism and the internet to extend our sense of the past.

Whenever we play an old piece of music or see a work if art in a museum, it connects us to people, places and things who lived and died long ago. For example, I’m currently reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère (19281982, San Francisco, Berkeley, Point Reyes, Santa Ana) a biography of Philip K. Dick. Or I recently saw The Revenant (1823, Montana, South Dakota) about Hugh Glass. I could link to dozen more movies and books I’ve recently seen that connect me to the past. Just follow those few links to understand how we network with the past, and how far and quickly that web of memory will carry you away. Trying to grasp the fullness of past is like falling into a black hole.

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

Here’s a photo of my father’s father, his brothers and their parents (my great grand parents). I know next to nothing about these people, and can only remember a couple of anecdotes. What would it take to learn about them?

The answer comes in a book I just finished, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who took a couple years out of his life to learn about his ancestors on his father’s side. This wondrous book will delight lovers of history, art and culture. There’s enough material here for six fascinating historical movies, and seeds for many more. The challenge here is for me to describe it in a way that will make you want to read it. It’s not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone that loves the past.

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

When I was young, I’d often hear or read that America had no old culture, not like the Europeans. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what they meant. Except for a few mementos, like your granny’s quilt, or collecting antiques, we seldom dwell on our own heritage. We’re always thinking about the next new gadget to buy (as we throw away the old ones), or the next new show to binge-watch. Some Americans are into genealogy, but not that many. We generally embrace the pop culture of our teenage years, which we cherish our whole life, but few people branch from from there.

Edmund de Waal has written a book that succeeds in capturing a panoramic snapshot of his cultural heritage that spans three centuries. The Hare with the Amber Eyes starts off as a quiet unassuming memoir that slowly builds into an atomic explosion of multicultural history of art collecting. The story is anchored by a collection of 264 Japanese netsukes that came into his family in 19th century, and de Waal inherited in 21st. The book is set in Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and London.

I have read this book for three book clubs now. It’s a challenge to explain its appeal. If you love art history, especially French Impressionism, or how Japanese art came to 19th century Europe and 20th century America, this book will appeal to you. If you like to read about Jewish history, especially about Jews living in Odessa, Vienna and Paris in the 19th and 20th century before WWII, this book will grab your attention. If you are fascinated by the American occupation of Japan after the war, the book has insights for you too. If you’re fascinated by Nazi art theft like The Monuments Men (the book, not the movie) and The Woman in Gold (the movie), then this book has stories for you. If you’ve ever tried to write your own families history and wondered what kind of effort it takes, then this book is for you. If you love the PBS shows Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, then this book is for you.

Most of all, if you’ve ever seen old photographs of your great grandparents and your great great grandparents and wonder what their daily lives were like, this book is for you.

I would be hard press to make a list of all the subjects de Waal touches upon in his small book. The frame of his story is to take his 21st readers back to the 19th century Paris to explain how his family first acquired the netsuke. His story begins in France as Impressionism is coming into vogue, which is concurrent with Europeans becoming obsessed with Japanese culture and art. The story then travels to turn of the century Vienna, past WWI, through the years between the wars, WWII in Europe, to the Japanese occupation by Americans, and then into the home stretch of this century. Along the way, The Hare With Amber Eyes encounters many famous people and events in 20th century history. If de Waal played six-degrees of separation, he’s only a few degrees from some very historical folk. Yet, de Waal current life is very unassuming. He’s an artist, a maker of porcelain. When heading into the past, you never know what you’ll find. Besides, we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents. It gets pretty easy to make some marvelous connections.

My goal is to try and explain why I liked the particular details in The Hare With Amber Eyes, and that’s rather difficult. I’m not that into Japanese netsuke, although they are impressive little sculptures. There’s no reason for me to identify with de Waal’s genealogy, my family was nothing like his. What enchanted my reading is their love of art and culture. The book’s connections to 19th century Paris and early 20th century Vienna provides vivid details of what it’s like to be great patrons of art. The book gives me another side of the history of Impressionism – the buyers side. Charles Ephrussi, who originally bought the netsuke, was even painted into Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Charles is the guy in the top hat. What a way to be remembered!

But why should I care about Charles? Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes makes me wonder why I care about anyone in the past. But I do. We all do. Most of us are obsessed with the past. I keep looking at that painting above and wonder what it was like to have been at that party. In the book, the netsuke are touchstones to the past. De Waal owns them now, and the netsuke put him one degree from Charles and many of his relatives between the 1870s and now. They tie a family history together. De Waal focuses on three of his ancestors, and the cities that shaped their souls, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

I can’t think of anything I own that ties me to the past like that, other than photographs. I wonder how many hands have held that photograph of my great grand parents? My mother’s mother, Lou Dare Little, was born in 1881. She held my mother’s side of the family together for decades. She bore five daughters, which held the family together for several more decades. But now that only my Aunt Louise is still alive, the family seems to be coming undone. What de Waal shows with The Hare with Amber Eyes, is how history and art can sew a family back together. However, it took two years out of his regular life to accomplish that effort. My cousin Jane wrote a book many years ago that tied the descendants of Lou Dare Little together – at least for a while. How many of my cousins and their descendants will keep reading Jane’s book in the future? Will anyone from newer generations write another book? We don’t have anything like the netsuke to travel into the future, to get later generations to remember us. Or do we?

I’m not sure I’m accomplishing my goal here. All I can really say is read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and let it convey what I want to say. It is a cornucopia of memory triggers. But also, every time you turn on your TV, or go to a movie, think about what you’re seeing is saying about the past. Whenever you read a book, have a family reunion, or go to an antiques dealer, think about how the past won’t let us go, or we won’t let it go.

JWH

The Burden and Responsibilities of Family Photos

When people die their children usually go through the deceased possessions and divvy up the family mementos which usually include photographs the dying person has collected in their lifetime.  My wife and I have the photographs from her family and my family.  And when people in your family know you have the family photos they tend to send you the odd photo in their collection that would mean something to you from their family.  Awhile back my cousin Alana sent me some pictures she had inherited from my grandmother when she died.  I had not heard from my father’s side of the family in decades, so we had a lot of catching up to do.

One of the photographs is four grown sons and their father and mother.  One of the sons is my father’s father, or my paternal grandfather that I never knew.  I never knew my maternal grandfather either.  All I ever knew about family history was was from my two grandmothers.  So this photograph introduced me to my grandfather, and great grandfather and grandmother, as well as three great uncles I never remembered even mentioned by anyone.  I wonder about their families.  Is there anyone like me with a copy of this photo wondering about the other three brothers?

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

My grandfather was named George Wallis Harris.  I’m James Wallace Harris, so somehow the spelling got changed, or the spelling from the genealogy was wrong about my grandfather.  He married Helen Imogene Delaney, and my dad was called George Delaney Harris.  I almost was James Delaney Harris.  My father’s father was the man on the right.  His brothers were from the left, Jan, Charlie and Carl.  My grandfather was born in 1897 and my grandmother in 1898.

The older couple in front of the sons are my great grandparents George General Harris, born 1872, and Minnie Maude Maynard, born 1871.  All I know about these people is they lived in Nebraska.  My father was born in Nebraska in 1920, but moved to Miami as a small child.  I can remember him telling me stories about visiting Nebraska, and how the farmers would get together to kill jack rabbits by walking side by side down the fields to flush them out.

I think my great grandparents worked a farm, but I don’t know. Only two of them bothered to dress up for the photo. I can’t tell if my great grandmother’s dress was dirty or is the smudges part of the photo or the copy of the photo.

I found one other photo among my mother’s photos that I think is of my great grandfather and my father and his younger brother Jack.  I don’t have any photos of their younger brother Bob at all.

1929q Jack Grandfather Dad - I guess

When I say owning the families photos are a burden or responsibility it’s because I have pieces of history, and maybe the only known copies that are evidence to people’s lives in the past.  I uploaded this photo to the web so my cousins could have it, and maybe convince my nephews to take interest.  Since Susan and I have no children I’m not sure where our photo collection will go when we die.  I assume we’ll give everything to our nephews and nieces.  We should give them copies now before something happens.

If our photos were to be burned up in a fire or destroyed in a flood, all these unique views of the past would be gone.  So I’m thinking I should put in the extra effort to preserve them.  It’s a shame there isn’t some kind of national historical photo registry.  There might be people alive today that could tell me more stories about these people.

All I know is my grandfather and grandmother, who is from Indiana, moved from Nebraska to Miami in the 1920s, but I don’t know how early.  I do know they were there by 1928 because I have this photo labeled “George Jr. and Jack Harris 1928, Coronado Apts. N.E. 17th Terrace.”  I had heard stories of them talking about the great Miami hurricane of 1926, but I don’t know if they there then or not.  My sister says my grandfather was referred to as a barefoot mailman, but that was something that started in the 1890s and I don’t think they were there that early.  Uncle Jack was born in Nebraska in 1924, so I assume they came to Miami between 1924 and 1928.

1928 Jack and Dad Coronado Apts

My father died when I was 19.  He always worked two and three jobs and was never home except to sleep, so I don’t remember talking to him much.  He was in the Air Force and we moved around a lot.  But we mostly lived around Miami, and when we were there I’d see my grandmother Helen Delaney Harris, whom I called Ma.  She mostly talked about growing up in Indiana.  I only have a few photos of her, the earliest of which is a newspaper clipping.  She’s third from the left on the top row wearing some god awful bow or flower on her head.

Helen Delaney Harris - school girl

I only remember a few stories about Ma even though I used to stay with her.  She managed apartments when I was growing up and sometimes my parents would leave me with her.  The apartments were always ones where old people lived and I’d hear a lot of stories about the old days, including meeting an old lady who had been on the Titanic.  I wished cheap video cameras had existed back in the 1950s and 1960s so I could have recorded these memories.  That’s the thing, all we have now are the photographs.  The stories pretty much went in one ear and out the other.  I wished I could have saved them.  Here’s the best photo I have of Ma.

1957-04 Dad's Mom Helen Delaney Harris

I do remember stories about her teaching in a one room school house, and that during the war she drove trucks and chauffeured officers as a staff driver.  She had lots of old friends and loved to collect figurines of dogs.  That’s not a lot to remember is it?  That’s why these photos are so important.  They are my only real evidence of the past.  I’m like that guy in that movie Memento trying to figure out life with only short term memories.  I have another photo of Ma.  When my mother got tuberculosis and went to stay in a sanatorium up north at Valley Forge, and my father was stationed in Canada, Ma took care of my sister Becky and I for several months.  This photo is from that time.

1959 - Jim Helen Becky

She looks so old there, but was just 61.  I’m turning 60 this year.  This photo was taking in Hollywood, Florida around 1958-59.  The house there is one of my favorites of childhood but I have no photographs of what it looked like on the inside.  I’d give anything if my parents had taken more photos.  I’m not sure who took the photo here, but I think it was taken to send to my mother in the hospital.  Those were our Easter outfits that year, and my snappy white hat blew out of the car window coming back from church.  Would I remember that without this photo?

I really don’t remember much about my father.  I don’t have many photos of him either.  Here’s one I like taken when he graduated high school.

1939-05 - Dad at Homestead FL

He’s a little younger in this photo than I was when he died in 1970.  I was 19.  I know very little about his teenage years, but I do know he hated my teenage years.  I had long hair, did drugs and was against the Vietnam war.  His dream for me was to go to the Air Force Academy.  I don’t know what his dreams for himself were.  Years ago I found a clipping from the Miami Herald that mentioned he and some of his classmates working on a project for the paper.  He told me he delivered telegrams for Western Union to make money in high school.  In 1942 he joined the Army and ended up a drill sergeant out in Arizona.  Somehow he started in the Army but ended in the Air Force.  I don’t know if he was ever in the Army Air Corps.  Maybe these uniforms can reveal that.  For all I know he could have been in the Army during the war and got out and then joined the Air Force.

1945-01 Dad in Arizona

1944-04 SSgt George D

1945 Dad

1949g -Mom and Dad

1952 - Mom Me Dad 2

The last photo with me and my mom from 1952.  The one before that was with my mom, before I was born, when they lived in Puerto Rico, probably round 1949.  I think that was the happiest time of their marriage.  For the first six years of their marriage they were told they couldn’t have children.  I do know Becky and I were a handful.

I can only find one later photo of my dad, an accidental photo, taken in 1969.  He’s profiled by the light, shining on his bald head.

1969 - Last photo of Dad

I have a few more photos from when he in high school and in the service, but these few here are pretty much all the evidence I have of my dad’s existence. When my sister and I die, and these photos are given to my nephews, this is all they will know about their maternal grandfather.  Maybe I can convince them to read this blog.  (Nick and Mack, if you want want copies of all the photographs just let me know.)

That’s the thing, what kind of past would we have without photos to remind us?  I have a responsibility to preserve the evidence that I have, but I don’t know how long people will care.   We believe people continue to exist as long as other people remember them.  That’s an interesting obligation.

If you keep the family photos you become the family historian, and a detective.  I really wasn’t prepared for this job.  Instead of inheriting all the pictures when the last member of the previous generation dies, children should each be given a copy of the family photos when they are little and encouraged to talk to the people in the photos when they are still living.  Probably good families do this, but we were wild active kids who couldn’t sit still.  We were hyperactive before they invented the word.

Like I said, Susan and I never had kids, so who will remember us?  And I probably don’t have many more photos of myself than I do of my dad.  I wished we were a family that liked to take pictures.  I wished we had taken one good photo of every family member each year.  I wished we had taken photos of all our pets.  I wished we had taken photos of all my friends and classmates.  I wished we had taken photos of all my houses, schools and neighborhoods.  I even wished we had photos of all our cars.

Hell, I didn’t know I’d get old some day and be tested on this stuff.  And I certainly didn’t know it would be my own desires that would be doing the testing.  I wish I had been forewarned that I would someday be the family historian and keeper of memories.

For my next project I’m going to research how to properly find, repair, store, and maintain old photographs.

JWH – 3/6/11