Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Importance of "Our" History

Recently, I stood in front of a room and told one of my most personal stories. It is MY story and I have known for a long time that some parts of it would interest others.

I wasn't quite prepared for the reaction that I got.

My audience told me that it was powerful. They told me that it made them realize the importance of their own history.

I once thought everyone realized the importance of their own history. As a seasoned archivist and public speaker, I now know that is not true.

As I have said before in this space, history is directly connected to each individual. History is important now because it is about now. We are the center of history. People existed before us. Events happened before we got here. People will live and events will happen after we are gone. Therefore, we are the center of history. History is memory of the now -- whenever that "now" is. Those memories will only become part of permanent history if we document the now properly. This is why archives are important. We are the spoke that keeps the memories of the history wheel turning. Without archives to keep memory safe, we lose that memory.

The story I told my audience was the story of my family escaping from the Holocaust. I realize that many people feel that my story is more "dramatic" than what they think they have to share. My grandparents' story is one of struggle, horror, and hope. I have learned a lot from my family history, but I have learned a lot from others' stories too.

My family did not come to the United States on the Mayflower. One of the reasons that I moved to New England was because I loved hearing those "other" stories of early settlers that were not related to my own family history. They seemed a bit romantic to a young girl. As I settled into my adult years, I realized that the Mayflower stories really weren't so "other." They were stories of a different struggle to survive. Though I could never be approved for membership in the DAR, I could certainly tie my history to those of DAR ancestors. There are stories of struggle and hope in everyone's past.

When I stood in front of an audience with my story a couple of weeks ago, I asked those listening to close their eyes and picture a circle with a timeline through it. I explained that they were the circle. The line to the left was all the people who came before them. The line to the right was all the people who will come after. The people who came before influenced their lives. Their lives in turn will influence the lives of those who come after them. This center of history timeline provides a good visual of why our actions matter; why our history matters. why our stories matter.

You are the center of history

Those of us in cultural heritage fields can use our own personal stories and the stories connected to the objects we keep to explain the importance of history. We can't assume that everyone knows the value of what we do. We need to find ways to connect people of all ages to the idea that history matters. In order to do this, we need to connect individual history to "other" stories and to larger cultures. Now, more than ever, we have opportunities to do this through social media and quickly changing ideas about society. Now, more than ever, we MUST do this BECAUSE of these quickly changing ideas. The records of history are mutating. We must raise awareness about their importance to efficiently collect the information they embody, provide appropriate access to this information, and make sure that personal digital documents migrate to formats in which they can be read in the future.

For a long time, I have connected MY story to the lives of the people I encounter when I work on collections. I hope that I connect the stories of my contemporaries to these collected memories too.

Earlier this year, on a whim, I made these CafePress products to broadcast this idea:

1 comment:

  1. Melissa, I am so glad that you are continuing to tell your story and preach your message.

    Incredibly, there are now people who are trying to minimize that portion of history that your grandparents suffered through. I always regret those news stories that announce that "the last one" in a city or region has passed away from the Holocaust period. That seems to say, "This is the last one around here who can tell that story as an eyewitness." It also implies that there is no one left at all to tell the story.

    I am glad a new generation is standing up to take their place and tell the story. That story needs to be remembered.

    I'm also appreciative of what you are doing because ALL of us need to preserve our important memories--not just for our family's heritage to be passed down, but to illustrate our eyewitness aspect on the key historical moments of our own day. If we won't tell our story about these times, no one else will, either.