Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Don't Open Until Halley's Comet": Time Capsules

From font to outfit - straight out of the 80s

1980s Time Capsule

On my current consulting project, I ran across a box in a Town Vault that is labeled "Don't open until Halley's Comet reappears in 2061." Vaguely remembering the last time Halley's Comet appeared, when I was in high school in 1986, I was fascinated by the idea of a comet time capsule. I can vividly imagine the 80s capsule. Besides our thoughts about the comet, perhaps this time capsule would include small items and documentation demonstrating early video games, the Commodore 64 and the earliest Mac, Nintendo, mismatched earrings, Walkmans, Miami Vice, Ray bans, Rubiks Cube, Trivial Pursuit, and Jane Fonda Aerobics videos...Though I've often encountered time capsules in the past, the idea of creating one to celebrate a comet seemed especially geeky and appealing. So I went online to explore how many other towns had the idea to celebrate Halley's Comet. I was surprised by how much information I found on the topic. It seems like Halley's Comet time capsules were the thing to do.

Time Capsules through History

Time Capsules: A Cultural History by William E. Jarvis describes time capsules as a "significant attempts to transfer cultural information across the millenia." According to Jarvis, the making of time capsules has roots back thousands of years, but it seems to me that our modern attempts can be linked back to the 13th century with the act of laying cornerstones.

I like that..."an Earth-based time capsule..."

It seems that time capsules really capture our imagination about the future -- where humans will be and what future generations will think of us. Time capsules are like archives repositories on steroids in that they encapsulate humanities achievements in a punctuated way that yells, "Hey, look at us! Hear our stories! Pay attention to what we have done and what we think at this moment!"

Time Capsules in a Digital World

Time capsules have come a long way. We realize that the future is a digital world and we have brought our thoughts about time capsules online by describing past projects and making digital spaces for recording future projects. Finding lost time capsules has been a significant problem in the past, when excited time capsule makers often forgot to leave good clues about where their capsules can be found. In fact, in the last public library where I worked, the director brought in metal detectors to try to determine where in the walls an old time capsule was located. Though online time capsules are gaining popularity, but we are still excited about the idea of leaving actual objects behind, like a present waiting to be opened. 

Two years ago, I served as an advisor to a high school student who made a time capsule for her senior project as a member of the first graduating class of the new local school. Today, if you look up "time capsule" online, the information about how to make one is plentiful. Believe it or not, it was difficult to find information about the topic a couple of years ago. Content on the Internet has exploded recently and the tools for finding worthwhile information have improved. At the time, I queried my colleagues through a listserv for information and was answered by an employee of the State of NJ Archives and Records Management division. He was nice enough to send me a packet on the ins and outs of time capsules. 

Best Practice and Links

If you are looking to create a time capsule of your own, here's a little summary of best practice:

  • Consider placing your time capsule in archives safe housing in a climate controlled repository (as my client's Halley's Comet time capsule is stored)  rather than burying it. 
  • If you feel you must bury it, use an aluminum or stainless steel container. Seek out appropriate containers from specialized suppliers.
  • Keep a record, in an easy to find location, of where your time capsule is and register it with the International Time Capsule Society.
  • Make a list of the items in your time capsule.
  • Make sure everything is clean when you put it in your capsule and wear cotton gloves when placing items for storage.
  • Use proper containers for diverse materials and do not store unstable items such as food.
  • Don't forget to record information about the time capsule event itself. 
Some Ideas for Outreach and Time Capsule Projects

Creating a time capsule can be a very rewarding and engaging project, highlighting the important moments in our lives. 

  • I think perhaps maybe I'll plan such a project for my own daughter's tenth birthday in a couple of years. I think this would certainly make a worthwhile family lesson!
  • My town is creating a Town Common area. In addition to selling bricks (another vogue type of project), perhaps a time capsule can be kept at the library up the street or buried under the newly installed gazebo? Time capsule are perfect opportunities for community projects.
  • Archives repositories should take advantage of time capsule events to explain how what we do relates to time capsules to capture human ingenuity and imagination. Professionals should use the opportunity to offer expertise and show our skills.

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