Saturday, May 12, 2012

5 New Ways to Think About Your Personal History

Today I am going to bring together some ideas from my talks, my recent book, and my experiences to help you think about the value of your own personal history. In fact, these ideas are not "new," but I do hope that presenting them this way will help you better understand your place in society and the role your personal papers play. I want you to get a broad view of your personal documentation; to consider how you can approach it and care for it to add to the historical record. [The historical record is the documentation we keep that allows us to look back and better understand our history.]

From the Albert Ryan Collection at Waltham Public Library.
I'll be talking about the influence of one man's collection on
a city at a talk in Waltham this summer.
So, without further ado (I've always wanted to say that), here is the ArchivesInfo 5 for personal history:

1. Others are interested in your story

You say, "But my story is MY story. It's personal. Why would anyone care about MY story?" I've heard this many times. In fact, humanity goes around on personal stories. I used to stand in front of a room and give out information about how to care for your things. I slowly started adding personal stories to my talks. People kept telling me that I'm a good storyteller and that I should add more personal stories. So, I did. I peppered them in with information about preservation and organization and archives management. Then yesterday, I stood in front of a room and did a talk that was pretty much solely based on a personal story. The response that I got was overwhelming to me. The audience loved my story. They could relate. It made them think about their own personal stories.

People want to hear about other people. It's in our makeup. We want to know that we share experiences; that we're not alone. You should tell your personal story because it is a community story. It may seem personal, but it is human and real.

2. Your history is not linear

I was born. I went to school. I got a job. I got married....history and our personal timelines seem very linear, but they are not. They are becoming less linear, in fact. At least in our heads... One of my favorite recent archives project is the project to care for the Salmon Rushdie Papers at Emory University. Rushdie did not only donate his paper files arranged all nice and neatly in folder to the University Special Collections, he also donated his computers. How does an archivist care for one's personal information on a computer so that other can use it and learn from it? That's the question for archivists today and that is something for you to think about too. On a computer our thoughts take many twists. We jump from Twitter to sitting and writing a blog post to doing our bills online. I jump to thinking about my sister on Facebook, to thinking about you in this blog post, to reading emails sent home from my daughter's teachers. Our lives are more than a straight progression. There are many aspects to our lives that tell our story. We should be thinking about it all. What makes us? Who influences us? We shouldn't just think about our milestones. (And my genealogist friends, this goes for your ancestors' history too. Think "What made them tick?" Not just when they were born and when they died.)

3. Your digital files and paper files make up one collection

And Salmon Rushdie leads me to another point...our personal "papers" are not just papers anymore. The sub-headline here is misleading. Your personal papers are your paper files, your audio tapes, your video, and your digital files. (That just seemed a little too long to put in a sub-heading title.) So when you think about the documentation that tells your story, you need to consider it all. Think about it as a collection. This "documentation" spread all over your house can even be brought into one room so you can better see it as a collection. All of these pieces tell the story of you and all are equally important for telling that story. Format doesn't matter. It's the information that matters.

4. You have the power to build a legacy

So with this knowledge comes great power. You have the power to help build your legacy. How do you want to be remembered? Have you recorded all the pieces of your life that you consider worth remembering? What doesn't get recorded will likely be lost somewhere down the line. How do you want your great-great-grandchildren to know you? What do you want them to think about you? What would you tell them if you could meet them in person? What would you tell your future community members generations down the line? What impact have you had on society?

5. You are the center of history

You ARE the center of history. Yes. You. You are the center of history because you matter most to you. Of course you do. And again, history is not linear. We can always swing it back to whatever point we want when we think about it. So, I am the center of history. (Yes, I know that I just told you that you are, but bear with me for a moment and pretend that I am.) I am the daughter of two people who were raised in New York City in the mid twentieth century. They bring with them views born of the Second World War and watching the introduction of the television and the Beatles. They in turn are kids of parents with early twentieth century ideas. Most dramatically, on one side of my family are grandparents who escaped from the Holocaust. (That's the personal story I told you about sharing at the very beginning of this post.) I could go back further to tell you about other family members and the society around them, but you get the idea. Instead, I'm going to spring forward to me, born in the seventies, watching the introduction of the computer, raised on Madonna and Michael Jackson. I will tell you how the generations that follow me will be influenced by what I am living through and my perspective on it. In short, in your case, I want you to recognize a timeline of history with you at the center. People came before you. People will come after you. We are all influenced by our families AND the society around us. We all are reflections of that. Our stories and our documents are reflections of that. Our stories are important to tell because indeed we are the center of history - this non-linear history with twist and turns and webs of events and people who all influence each other.

Consider your papers and mold your legacy. Think of the power of your story to reflect others. Reflect on how your story sits in the middle of developing civilization and how that story is a piece of a much larger understanding of US.

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