Thursday, May 11, 2017
The History All Around Us
We are surrounded by the fingerprints of history. The only thing we need to do is learn how to dust those prints—to preserve them.
That lesson was cemented in my consciousness as I struggled to pin an identity on the faces in the mystery photograph album I had found in a local antique store. How was I to know, when I first lifted it from the basement box where it had been stored, that it would connect me, a casual shopper in Lodi, California, with a family five thousand miles away in County Cork, Ireland?
The simple items we find as we make our way through our everyday life may turn out to be much the same as that photo album I stumbled upon. Photographs, old newspaper clippings, even street signs or old houses contain shreds of a saga from our past. We can only read those details if we care to learn enough to recognize the signs and pursue the trail to the past. But that trail is there, bidding those who heed to follow.
Now that I've followed the trail from unidentified faces in a photo album to the now-disclosed identity of the family who once assembled it, I'm remembering other items which had, at some point in the past, seemed to call my name, beckoning me to pursue another micro-history. There were the street signs bearing the name, as it turned out, of some of my family's specific ancestors. There were pieces of furniture once belonging to now-long-gone relatives. There likely are house histories for the places where my family once lived. And, oh, the photographs—some of which are still faces without any names.
The epiphany of this experience has converted me into an evangelist for the ubiquity of history—and, beyond that, to encouraging people to open their eyes to that history and find ways to decipher it, preserve it, share it, and, when possible, return it to its rightful owners.
Perhaps, deep down, I nurse a secret hope that someone, somewhere, will stumble upon a hundred-year-old photograph of one of my ancestors. Or pull out a drawer full of junk in an attic somewhere back east, and find a letter addressed to someone in my family.
I think all of us who finger the strands of our own genealogy harbor those same hopes. Hopefully, we can find ways to step away from the straight path of the typical documents we've always come to expect will harbor our family's secrets, and wander among those other possibilities. I've certainly taken inspiration from the document-poor Irish, who have learned to glean genealogical information from such unlikely sources as century-old dog licenses, for instance. I want to free myself from the restrictions of thinking I can only learn about my family by doing the BMD chase, or sticking with decades of census records. Wandering through old newspapers from the family's hometown may paint a much more interesting picture than those dry vital statistics. What if a gift of a new discovery awaited us as researchers in some of these other, unlikely places?
Better than that, what if we all crowdsourced our discoveries—you looking in your town for the names and faces that, perhaps, would turn out to aid me in my search, while I, on my side of the continent, look for items which conceal just the details you were seeking? It is not that inconceivable, considering we are all surrounded by the tokens of history. While giants like FamilySearch or Ancestry or any of the other genealogical companies do their part in digitizing large swaths of documentation, each of us can do our small part in adding to the data stream with our own discoveries, too.