When I began my Phd studies, I also became more acquainted with other side of historical research – archives and preservation of history. I had already made the connection to the importance of having primary sources in my masters work, but it really sunk in when I began work in my university’s archives as a part-time job and eventually when I did more archival work for my dissertation. Sifting through documents, especially holding them in my hands, I wondered what we did not know because one thing or another was not preserved. What could I and others learn from the odd item, like a church bulletin, a telegram, or an advertisement for perfume in a lady’s magazine? From reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, I knew I could learn a lot from little things. The day to day accounts of things, the scraps of things pulled together, could reveal something larger about the past, if only I looked at them from the right perspective.
This I learned and this I tried to employ as I researched and wrote my dissertation and then the Mercy project. Americanists are not nearly as hampered by the lack of preservation as say Medievalists, but that doesn’t mean that everything isn’t universally preserved either.
I have been thinking about preservation of history, specifically of manuscript records and material culture, recently because I recently lost my uncle. He passed away and we are left to do something with his papers. He didn’t save everything, but he did hold on to a few interesting bits of material culture that is very relevant to my family’s history. This has prompted the question of what is relevant beyond my personal connection. Is my uncle’s life of interest to the larger narrative of twentieth century America?
What’s more, he is the last of his generation of our family (my father passed away over a decade ago) and with both a historian’s eye and a member of a family, I am keen to preserve connections to our family’s history. What am I to do with this material culture that has meaning for me? Can this pen and ink sketch drawn by my grandfather when he was a teenager reveal something important? Or am I just touched by the fact that it was preserved at all, from father to son, to us?
This of course prompts a question about genealogy and the study of Family History as a subfield. In the past I have used my own family history in the classroom to help my students understand everything from how to research, what’s the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how the questions we ask about our sources can reveal a fresh perspective on the past. What’s more, we have other microhistories that deal with subjects other than my family (shocking, but true). Can my personal family documents contribute to a large discussion of the past? Should they?
Ultimately, what do we (my siblings and I) do with these things? I am not an unrepentant hoarder if I wish to save these papers, pictures, Zippo tape measure, or Thrift Card from WWI. No, not really.