Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Hero's Story

What is a "hero" to you and where do you find one?

One of the most interesting ideas I've explored this summer is the idea of a hero in literature. My background is in history, not English, so my heroes were the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Elizabeth I. Yet, I've realized this summer that the hero's journey to which I best relate, real-people who do incredible things, quite comfortably parallels the hero in tales of fantasy. The archivist, curator, genealogist and other history professionals, can relate to finding heroes in our research or collections Perhaps we should pull them out to give them more exposure.

Introducing students to fictional heroes in literature can increase their understanding of what a "hero" is, encouraging them to make their own decisions for personal growth and the greater good. Harry Potter is a hero to many. He has a strong moral compass and fights for the greater good. Others might relate to heroes in non-fiction, like I naturally do: Rosa Parks, Oscar Schindler, and other historical figures can feed our imaginations through biographies and historical texts.

How many of us seek heroes in our local archives to bring to the attention of our community and to young people? Finding local heroes from our past can more greatly influence people who are trying to find someone to whom they can relate and who can give them inspiration.

Last year, I was given a set of books written by a "hero" in the town in which I work. Mike MacAlary wrote a Pulitzer prize winning book exposing corruption in the New York police department in the 1990s. MacAlary was an alum of the local high school where I work as a librarian. I pulled his yearbook photo and sought news articles about him. From these I created a small permanent exhibit. NH Chronicle featured a story on MacAlary because Tom Hanks recently starred in a Broadway play called "Luck Guy" about the journalist. (MacAlary died shortly after receiving his prize.) The news program visited our school to check out our exhibit. A community member then donated a second set of books written by MacAlary to the high school; Another offered to get a Playbill signed for us to add to our display. And, thus, our archival collection about MacAlary is beginning to grow and to give our students a little something extra to think about.

Many times our archival heroes do not get special recognition or awards. One of my own personal favorite archival heroes whom I have encountered in my career is Ida Annah Ryan of Waltham, MA.  Ms. Ryan was a suffragette and the first one to be graduate from MIT with a Master's degree in Architecture.

But, in my opinion, there is a lot more to this hero stuff than just being a first or participating directly in something we consider historically noteworthy.

In archives (in institutions and outside of them) we can find stories like this:

and this:

and this:

When we uncover a hero's story in the archives, someone may turn it into a great article or book. The story, like Ballard's diary, may even be used for educational purposes. But consider how a local hero can more greatly affect lives. Local stories seem more real. People may identify with the places in the story. They may related to the trajectory of the person's life and realize that they too can do great things. Each individual can set out on his own hero's journey to find his way and make the world a better place.

Find a real person who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Find someone who fixed something in his life. Find someone who took advantage of an opportunity to make things better. Find someone who influenced a group of people to make positive changes on a larger scale.  If you are looking for a way to attract young people to your institution or to the study of history, consider the hero angle. Find someone inspirational to whom we can relate. Your hero does not have to be a wizard to get attention.

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