Collected thoughts about current events

  • King Charles has some mighty big shoes to fill. Elizabeth walked a delicate path of calm and firm leadership in a rapidly changing world, and she did so with grace and dignity. Of course, Charles has spent his entire life training for this job, and he has watched her example that entire time. I’m sure he will do fine.
  • Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump remains under fire in the United States. He was the first person since General Eisenhower to be nominated for the Presidency by either party who did not have incumbent President, Vice=President, Senator, or Governor on his resume. He now supports candidates for the House and Senate who likewise have not “paid their dues” by working for years under the supervision of a political party and rising through the system. This may be a major reason Democratic and Republican leaders fear Trump and work so hard against him. The issue of Top Secret documents taken from the White House by Trump and his administration reveals much about how the system functions. No one in President Biden’s staff complained that they could not do their jobs because important documents were missing. The Archivist of the United States reported missing documents and asked the Department of Justice to locate and retrieve them. Presidential papers always belong to the nation, not to the retired chief executive. For this reason, we have Presidential Libraries and Museums. But, aside from Nixon and his tapes, no former President has ever been searched for possession of secret documents from his White House years. I have not heard any comments from Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama about Trump’s papers. On the other hand, the Archivist (whose job is supposed to be nonpartisan) has not only created a fuss over Trump’s documents; he has also retired from his post, saying that he wants to be sure that President Biden appoints his successor.
  • Ukrainian forces have enjoyed moderate success this month turning back the Russian invasion and reclaiming some parts of their country. The war is far from over. Russia maintains a huge advantage in resources and manpower. Other governments are willing to provide Ukraine with weapons, but no one will be replacing the soldiers lost on the battlefield. Putin will not back down; he stepped into this mess, and he is determined to keep his foot planted where it has landed. Some small gestures in Russia call for his resignation or removal, but Putin spent years building a power structure to protect him. His welcome fall from power remains a distant possibility, not yet a near hope. When it finally happens, world leaders must be ready to help Russia reestablish itself as a democracy, a free nation, and a defender of human rights and freedoms. The term limits flouted by Putin need to be restored; the Russian people will have to learn how to function without a tyrant controlling their country.
  • Mainstream media is doing all it can to minimize the Democratic Party’s loss of power in the coming mid-term election. As always in American elections, voter turn-out will be key. Generally, the party which lost the most recent presidential election has greater success drawing its supporters to the ballot box. Enormous efforts are underway to inspire liberal Americans to vote this November. The majority of Americans—those who are pro-life, who prefer limited government, and who favor a recovered economy over gifts from the government—must remember to cast their ballots and to encourage their families and friends (and all those who agree with them) to do the same. J.
Advertisement

More about my family

When I composed yesterday’s post, I got so excited sharing the history of my family that I forgot part of what I wanted to say. Here it is:

This month I have been posting historic family pictures on FaceBook each day. Sometimes it’s a single picture, sometimes it’s two or three pictures. I’ve been getting good reactions from family—including cousins I almost never see anymore—as well as from other friends.

Why am I doing this? Well, as a historian and an archivist, I want to promote the business. Especially those weeks that I had to work from home, trying to do the same things I would be doing at work, I knew that I had to do the full job of an archivist—not merely to preserve and to organize, but also to share. Archivists don’t digitize the entire collection and put it online—we digitize a small amount of material that is interesting or informative. Real researchers don’t stop at surfing the internet; when they find something of interest, they identify where it is located and come to that place to look at the rest of the collection.

Beyond that, I have gotten major fatigue scrolling through FaceBook and other social media. It feels like a game of dodgeball back in junior high school, trying to avoid all the mentions of disease and politics and the intersection of the two. So I thought I’d change the subject—give myself and other people something different to talk about and think about. And that has worked.

It has worked so well that my sister and some of my cousins commented over the weekend that I ought to take all this family information I’ve been gathering and write a book. I’ve handled books written by genealogists. They tend to be dry as dust—recording vital information, but often omitting the interesting and unusual family stories about these various individuals.

So I’m considering a book on the Salvageable family. The first question is: how much of the family do I want to cover? Am I writing for my children and their descendants—do I want to include my wife’s side of the family? Do I want to focus on me and my ancestors? Or do I want to stick to my mother’s side of the family, which contains most of the interesting stories that have come to light thus far. (And includes those cousins who are suggesting that I write a book.)

Even though that matter is not settled, I have made two other decisions. If I write this book, I will start each family line with the immigrant who came to the United States. Where I know names and dates for ancestors who remained in Europe, I might include them in an appendix or sidebar, but I want this to be an account of the Salvageables in America. Also, rather than focusing on one line at a time, with chapters relating to different streams that entered the river, I want to make the book chronological. I would like to write a chapter for each decade, describing where the various ancestors were during that decade and what they were doing.

Moreover, I want to include some historic context in each chapter. Think how much fun the 1860s will be—men fighting each other in the Civil War (and I have ancestors who fought for the Union and ancestors who fought for the Confederacy). Wouldn’t it be cool to find two great-great grandfathers involved in the same battle, shooting each other? (And, if either of them had been a better soldier, I would never have been born.)

I can only guess how long it will take to complete the family research and begin writing. This project likely will be years in the making. And it will not be lucrative—we’re not talking Roots here. I don’t care to dabble in historical fiction, creating conversations that may have happened. I want to include verifiable facts, along with family stories and mysteries.

And this is much more fun than slogging through the current international crisis and thinking only about it night and day. J.

The value of old newspapers

This week Doug asked me about the value of historic newspaper. Many people save them, of course: the newspapers that first gave the news that President Kennedy was shot, or that astronauts had walked on the moon, or that a war had begun or ended. I was sorry to have to tell Doug that the answer to his question is “absolutely no value at all.” That statement is more than a personal opinion; it is the word of a trained and certified archivist.

Why do old newspapers have no value? Let me count the ways:

  1. They printed so many of them. Most have disappeared into garbage cans, recycling bins, bird cages, and the like, but many copies of old newspapers remain stored in closets, attics, and basements. At least a bicentennial quarter is still worth twenty-five cents, but those quarters have not increased in value because so many were made. Even in the year 2076, a bicentennial quarter will probably be worth no more than twenty-five cents, because so many were minted.
  2. But newspapers diminish in value. If you tried to increase the value of a newspaper by putting it under glass and putting a frame around it, someone else might buy it from you, but probably only for the value of the frame. The buyer would most likely throw the newspaper away.
  3. For obvious reasons, newspapers are printed on low value paper. Over time, the acidic quality of the paper reacts to air, sunlight, temperature changes, humidity changes, and other factors. This is why newspapers become yellow and brittle over time. Their deterioration can be slowed by keeping them safe from sunlight and in a stable environment (unchanging temperature and humidity). Most of our attics and closets and basements are nowhere close to stable. In fact, it is very expensive to build a room that remains constant in temperature and humidity.
  4. As they deteriorate, newspapers release their acid onto adjoining surfaces, causing them also to darken and become more brittle. They can damage other papers which have more value, such as handwritten notes and letters. As an archivist, I always separate newspapers and newspaper clippings from other collections of paper. My first inclination is to discard the newspaper or clipping. I might, however, keep a set of clippings as an indication of the personal interest of the person who took the trouble to cut articles from newspapers. Especially if the clippings have underlines or handwritten notes, they are worth saving—not for financial value, but only for historic information about a person.
  5. Newspaper publishers and libraries keep copies of newspapers. To save storage space, they often preserve the images digitally or—more old-school—on microfilm. Some companies even make copies of old newspapers available through the internet. Because these images are readily available, no value remains in the original copy of a newspaper.

What should you do, then, with historic newspapers that you or your parents or grandparents have saved? My advice is to discard them. Use the storage space for more valuable items. Reduce your risk of fire, of insect infestation, and of damaging other papers you are saving. Get rid of excess baggage before you die, so that your family doesn’t have to wonder what to do with all your old trash.

If the newspaper has some sentimental value for you—maybe it is the front page from the day you were born—then take a picture of the paper before you discard it. Save that picture at least three different places: on your camera, on a desktop or laptop computer, on a portable memory, as an email attachment, or on the Cloud. Always save a digital image or document more than one place. From time to time you may wish to check your images; if one copy has been lost or damaged, you can replace it from one of your other copies.

But get rid of your discolored, crumbling, smelly, bulky newspapers. You will be glad you did. J.

Vinegar and floodwater

The river is rising, and more rain is coming.

I work downtown, a short stroll from the river, and the thing to do these days is to take that stroll at lunchtime and stare at the muddy water as it streams past. Levees have given way upstream, and even local neighborhoods have been evacuated. Record flooding is happening all over the place. I saw my first record-breaking flood the month I turned ten, and witnessed several similar floods over the years, which is why my childhood home was bought by the government and leveled.

I remember carrying things out of the basement when I was a child to rescue them from coming floods. I didn’t think I would be doing that again, certainly not at work. But last Wednesday the building managers had a series of worried meetings as they considered the worst-case scenario for this flood event. The building is protected by a rarely-needed sump pump. The pump had not even been checked for several years. Management hired some specialists to check the pump on Friday, but meanwhile they also considered the option that a power failure might occur over the weekend, rendering the pump powerless. So, management decided to have all the employees drop what we were doing and carry things up out of the basement.

Several different entities are in the building—some related to one another, others merely renting space. Tenants include branches of the state university, attorneys, and even a vegetarian restaurant. The building itself is part of the public library system; it contains the library’s archives, the library’s art collection (aside from objects currently on display in other library buildings), art galleries (one of which sells locally-created art), and several other library departments. The basement contained (until the end of last week) storage for the art collection and for the archival items received but not yet processed. In other words, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind items (some quite valuable) were threatened by the flood. It made sense to bring it all upstairs.

People sometimes donate unique items to the library, which is why it maintains an archive. In the library’s archives are family records and photo albums, business records, church records, government records, and the like. The library owns letters and diaries written by soldiers during the Civil War. It holds Red Cross records, Garden Club records, school records, and thousands of photographs from earlier times. People use the library’s archives to study the history of railroads, the local fire department, historic people buried in local cemeteries, and their own families. People come to learn the history of the house where they live or of a business building they are remodeling. Not all this information was threatened by the flood—the material that has been processed is safely stored higher in the building. But who can say what information is hiding in the material not yet processed? Not to mention the art collection—it all had to be moved.

The research room is open nine hours a day, six days a week. Junior high students and university professors might be working within touching distance on their different projects. Books have been published based on information available only in this building. Many of the people who come—roughly half of them I would guess—are researching their genealogy. And, because there is a restaurant on the first floor, researchers and librarians sometimes smell the food being prepared. One day last week, the restaurant workers were roasting garlic—the scent reminded me of my mother’s zucchini recipe, fried in a skillet with garlic and herbs and a little vegetable oil. Other days the research room smells of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

This morning the research room smelled like Harvard beets. Those are beets cooked in vinegar. This time the restaurant was not to blame. Among the items brought up from the basement are several canisters of film. Old film made of cellulose acetate plastic can chemically disintegrate, and the most obvious symptom of that disintegration is a vinegary scent. The library has one full-time employee whose task is to convert older records, whether audio or video, into a digital format before the original is lost beyond hope of recovery. These donated films are now sitting up on the third floor, undergoing chemical change, and the scent wafts down the atrium into other parts of the building.

The river continues to rise. No one knows how many days the library’s art collection will be sitting in hallways and meeting rooms and nooks and crannies all over the building. No one knows how many days the unprocessed archives will continue to form a maze between offices. A potential catastrophe has been averted, but it was done through many hours of hard labor and with no small inconvenience to the library’s staff. J.

Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

Stream of consciousness

…when your doctor changes all your medications—blood pressure, allergy, and mood control—at the end of November, so that the first week of December you cannot assess which things are shaping your approach to life: the change in medication; dark, gloomy skies; later sunrises and earlier sunsets; an allergy to oak leaves and their dust; pressure of the holiday season; the latest senseless obsession; traffic and bad drivers; tedious tasks at work….

Listen: When I was a teen-aged boy, my mother would bring me to the county fairgrounds on the day when all the 4-H members in the county would bring in their projects to be judged and displayed. In the morning I would help check in the wood-working exhibits—woodworking! (And all these years later, I still can’t complete a decent woodworking project. It’s taken me all fall to finish the task of rebuilding a wooden rail around the front steps. A decent carpenter could do the work in half a day, but I’m doing the same steps three or four times to get it right, and often walking away for days in disgust before I can return to the task.) Anyhow, when all the projects were checked in, I would go over to the Home Economics building, with its 4-H exhibits of cooking, baking, canning, sewing, knitting, crocheting, macramé, ceramics, flower arranging, table setting, and the like. Each category was being measured by a different judge, who would award blue, red, or white ribbons and then select champion projects from the blue ribbon winners, while a person such as my mother would record the judge’s remarks on each exhibit. My job that afternoon was to gather all the sheets of paper containing judges’ remarks and arrange them alphabetically by exhibitor name. Each 4-H exhibitor could then come to the fair and pick up the judges’ remarks for all of his or her exhibits. Little did I know at the time that this annual task would prepare me more for my present career than all the classes I took in college and in graduate school.

For some years ago Mr. X and his secretary arranged all his incoming mail and copies of outgoing mail in folders by the month. Now these papers are being saved for researchers to study Mr. X and his boss. But no one is going to care what letters Mr. X received and sent in February 1985. No, they will want to know if Mr. Y sent a letter to Mr. X or his boss in 1985 or 1986. So I am taking boxes of folders, removing all the letters, and arranging them alphabetically by year, just like those 4-H forms from long ago. My task is not to read and interpret the letters. All I’m here to do is arrange the letters and describe the arrangement in a database so other people can come here and read and interpret them.

Meanwhile, we have a sick cat at home. About three weeks ago he suddenly lost his balance so badly that he could barely walk. We asked ourselves what could afflict a cat so suddenly: a stroke? MS? ALS? Guillen-Barre? The veterinarian suspected an inner ear infection and started the cat on steroids and antibiotics. He (the cat) has gotten better, but we cannot be sure how much is due to clearing the infection and how much is due to his ability to adjust to continuous vertigo and (perhaps) double vision. He can walk and even run a little, but his jumping is limited to beds and couches—this of a cat who regularly patrolled the top of six-foot-tall bookcases, not to mention the china cabinet and the grandfather clock. He seems content with his lot rather than unhappy. But, when walking or sitting, he tilts his head to one side as if that helps him see things better. It’s cute and endearing, but also heartbreaking because he never did that before.

And why do WordPress and Createspace both demand that I review my work one more time before I can publish it? I always write in Microsoft Word and read through the text several times to make corrections before I copy and paste it. Why do these companies assume that I’m handing in a rough draft that needs another look before it can be shared?

And we are gradually unpacking the Christmas decorations which were sent out for cleaning after our fire last May. They are all in good shape, except for an occasional stain here or there, nothing intolerable. But they were not packed by the cleaners in any sort of discernable pattern. So at present we have a manger scene with ceramic figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, camels, and angels—but no baby in a manger yet, and no sheep. And other random items are similarly appearing in the house as we unpack one box at a time. Still, life goes on, and it’s hard to know how to feel….

J.

 

Treasures recovered

I wasn’t looking for them, but I found them all the same: treasures from an earlier time, almost another lifetime, hidden where only I would be likely to find them.

You know how it is. Sometimes when you pack your things to move, you grab a stack of papers and stuff them in a box. The box moves with you, but then it gets set in a quiet, out-of-the-way place. You move again and the box comes with you, but you still never get around to unpacking it. Eventually, you forget what you originally put in that box.

I have five such boxes filled with paper of various kinds—papers I wrote for school (from elementary school through graduate school), short stories and plays and poems I’ve written, scrapbooks from different times in my life, baseball scorecards, photographs and other things I used to tape to my wall when I was in college, and dozens of other memories, some of which I had long forgotten. I saw the Big Red Machine in action in Chicago—Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and the rest, facing Fergie Jenkins in Wrigley Field. I wrote a paper about schizophrenia for my health class in eighth grade. I attended Boys State. Such memories!

I saved odd headlines from the newspaper, but when Jay Leno showed odd headlines on his show, I couldn’t remember what I had done with my collection. Here are three of my favorites:

“Diary of a Semi-Comatose 16-Year-Old, in Living

“Asian Woman Pastor Wheaton Speak”

…and my favorite, about a high school volleyball game: “St. Francis Handles Wheaton Christian Girls”!

I was looking for a certain short story I wrote when I was in high school. I found many short stories, some of which I don’t even remember writing. Here is an example. I know I wrote this story; it’s in my own unmistakable handwriting. I don’t remember when I wrote it or why:

THE BIKE RIDE

It was a dark, cold, and cloudy day when I left my house in town for a bicycle ride into the country. The charming thing about where I live is that both the scenery of the country and the comfort of the city are nearby. A bike ride to see the autumn colors, as I was doing, took only five minutes. I crossed the river, pedaled up the long hill, passed the church and the cemetery, turned right, and rode the smooth country road for about a quarter of a mile. Then I made another right turn, and I was in the middle of a beautifully-colored grove of trees.

I stood and looked at the yellows, the reds, the browns and greens, and I listened to the cheerful chirps of birds gathering in preparation for migration. No passing car disturbed my peace; no loud noise scared the birds into flight. I felt warmth on my back. Looking up, I saw that the sun had broken through the clouds and was lighting up the sky. I unfastened my jacket to let in the warmth.

After my visit with the trees was complete, I turned and rode back into town. First I traveled down the smooth country road, then turned left, rode past the cemetery, past the church, coasted down the long hill and across the river, and stopped in front of my house. Looking up, I saw that it had become cloudy again. It was also cold again. Shivering, I put the bike in the garage and went into the house.

And that’s the way life was, in another time and another place. J.

Ten tons of paper

One day last month I moved ten tons of paper. I didn’t move it all at the same time, of course, or all at once. The paper was in boxes, lots of boxes, averaging forty pounds a box. Some weighed less than forty pounds, but a lot of them weighed more. It took three of us about six hours to finish the project, but I know that during these six hours I moved at least five hundred boxes.

I work at a library. One department of the library is an archive. Individuals, families, businesses, and other organizations donate their papers to the library so other people can study those papers and learn about those people and organizations and their contributions to the history of our city. After the papers have been donated, a team of archivists prepares them for researchers. The archivists go through the papers, removing rusty staples and paper clips, hardened rubber bands, and other harmful items. Next they organize the paper to help the researchers, although they try to maintain the original order whenever possible, since the order of the papers is part of their story. Finally, the archivists write a description, or index, of the papers, which they call a Finding Aid. This description tells researchers what the library has and where they can find these papers.

The library is running short of storage space. To use space more efficiently, the library’s directors bought shelves that move along a track. These movable shelves can contain more boxes than regular shelves, since there is only one aisle for the whole set of shelves, but the shelves can be moved left or right along the track, making every box accessible (but not all of them at the same time). To use these shelves, though, the library’s workers first had to empty the old shelves, dismantle and remove them, install the new shelves, and then put the boxes on the new shelves. That is what I did last month—moved ten tons of paper in boxes onto their new, space-efficient shelves.

Some reader is saying right now, “Hey, J., why doesn’t your library join the twenty-first century? You could save a lot of time and a lot of space if you would just digitize all those papers instead of storing them and organizing them and describing them. You could load the digital copies into the Cloud and send the paper out to be recycled.” Well, I’m sorry, dear reader, but it is not as easy as you think. I can give you three very good reasons why your up-to-the-minute proposal doesn’t work.

First, do you have any idea how many pages are contained in ten tons of paper? Can you imagine how many hours of labor it would take to run each one of those pages through a scanner? And even if the library wanted to spend money to digitize every sheet of paper, what kind of server do you think could handle all those scans and make them available to the public?

Second, even if they did digitize all those pages and publish them online somewhere, how would researchers know what was in those pages? They still need to be organized and described to be useful to anyone. As a book needs a table of contents and an index, so a collection of historic papers—including ledger books, maps, photographs, and all kinds of other stuff—needs a finding aid to make research possible.

Third, digital technology itself can fail. Computers crash, files become corrupted, and technology always changes. If the only copy of some important document is digital, sooner or later it will disappear. How many of us have lost priceless (to ourselves) stories and essays and photographs because we trusted a computer to save it for us? The library’s staff of archivists will digitize the papers and photographs of greatest value to researchers, and they will make them available online; but to be safe, they still will not discard the originals. Most of the tons of paper will not be digitized. It will be cleaned and arranged and described.

The library directors are wise to accept these gifts of paper, to pay archivists to organize and describe these gifts, and to keep these gifts carefully in storage for researchers today and for researchers of generations yet to come. I am glad that I, in one small way last month, was allowed to contribute to the preservation of history.
J.