Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, December 4, 2017

What do we remember? A Cautionary Tale for Genealogists

Salvador Dali's painting, "The Persistence of Memory" is a classic surrealist work that is commonly associated with the idea of the relativity of time and space. Many years ago, I began my university years as a Fine Arts major studying painting and drawing at which time,  I became aware have a great deal of art history. For me, this particular painting has come to represent the malleability of memory. It shows how over time, orally transmitted stories and events change to adapt to the present impressions of the historical researcher. The hard edges of the stories from the past often become softened by the passage of time.

For genealogists, this painting should represent the need for transmitting current information about our lives and families through journals and diaries. However, as has been the reality of these documents throughout history is that they almost always exist in a single copy. That single copy is usually transmitted from generation to generation and if preserved, usually falls into the hands of the family memory hoarder. When this ostensible family historian finally dies, this becomes the decisive moment for deciding whether or not the particular document is preserved.

Today's technology provides us with a method of preservation that will increase the possibility that a personal journal or diary will survive the transmission process. There are a number of repositories for such personal records and many of those records are now being digitized and put online. One of those major repositories is the Books collection. As of today, this collection has 351,082 digitized books and records. While writing this post, I made a search for the word "diary" and found 33,733 results. Unfortunately, a search for the word "Journal" would produce a skewed result because of the word's association with other forms of publication. For genealogists, the importance of this collection on is that all of the books and other publications that have been digitized relate to genealogical research.

In a larger sense, the above painting should also remind us that our own memories in research are evanescent unless properly documented and preserved. Another important component of preservation of personal memories is the oral interview. During the past few years, I've conducted a number of oral interviews. However, conducting the interview is just a first step, you need to make provisions for the preservation of the information. In every case, a transcription of the interview should be made and copied and preserved. Local university libraries have a special collections departments that may be willing to accept and preserve personal diaries and journals. You might also wish to check with historical societies and other such organizations. All of my oral interviews over the past few years are now being stored and hopefully transcribed by the Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections Library.

If you want to give a gift this Christmas season, how about giving one of memories and providing a way for those memories to be preserved?

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