Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Excavating my past

I don't recall whether I have mentioned it in this space, but I'm getting ready to move from my home in Boston, where I have lived for more than 20 years. I haven't sold the place yet, but I've started going through the mass quantities of paper and junk, moving what I can to my country place and deciding on what to landfill.

It turns out I have a lot of stuff I didn't know I had, and I did quite a few somewhat consequential things I hadn't thought about for a long time and had nearly forgotten. Back when I was in graduate school, for example, I paid for my crusts of bread with a consulting business. Among the projects I took on were a minority needs assessment study for the city of Fitchburg, Massachusetts; and strategic planning processes, including environmental assessments, for Boston Mobilization for Survival and Boston's Multicultural AIDS Coalition.

I found my files from these projects in a box in a spare bedroom I've been using for storage. This all happened in the early 1990s, and obviously there is no practical need to keep the papers. I ended up tossing them. But it got me to thinking about history. It consists of stories built around whatever evidence happens to have survived.

Ethnic relations in the post-industrial Merrimack Valley in the 1990s would be an interesting subject for a history dissertation. Fitchburg is a lot like Lawrence, where the famous Bread and Roses strike happened in 1912. It's a mill town where back then, immigrant workers were from Eastern and Central Europe, Ireland and French Canada. In 1994, those were the "indigenous" residents and the town was painfully absorbing a big influx of Latinos (lots of Uruguayans, for whatever reason), Hmong refugees who had been resettled there, and of course it had an African-American population from the great migration north of the Depression and war years. All of this with a scarcity of jobs, far from the big city.

The early days of the HIV epidemic, as a social, political and cultural phenomenon in African American, Latino and/or Haitian communities, would make another good dissertation; as would the remnants of the New Left as the counterculture 60s (which lasted from 1964 to 1975) faded away in the 1980s and 90s.

My files would have been a good resource for any of those: lots of pertinent interviews, survey data, and minutes of meetings where highly knowledgeable key activists were debating the state of affairs and what to do about in great depth. It's possible that the relevant organizations still have some of it in their archives but I doubt it. Leadership has moved on, the times have changed, I expect that at some point they did the same file purging I did. So all that is gone.

Why didn't I hold on to the files? Basically, I consider the probability vanishingly small that anyone with an interest in these little bits of history would ever track me down and connect with my yellowing pieces of paper. I've got enough stuff to schlep and organize, I just can't keep it all because someday, some way that I can't possibly predict somebody might be interested in it. And I don't think any university library is going to want to catalog and archive my papers when I'm gone either.

How much of what we think we know about the past is a function of what documents just happened to survive? I know historians worry about such questions all the time, but it was interesting to hold some pieces of the past, not entirely insignificant, in my hands, and realize that I am part of the age old process of selective memory.


kathy a. said...

ack! you threw them away!

you are absolutely right about history being what can be pieced together from surviving evidence. and also correct about the limitations of what one pack-rat should reasonably keep hauling around. i have untold mountains of paper and such; it's a challenge. i'm trying to throw stuff out, but stuff that i know is available or archived elsewhere.

for future reference -- one of my favorite sources of otherwise-lost information is the local history room of public libraries. i've found GREAT stuff in clippings files, research projects or dissertations, oral history projects, etc. library policies and practices vary by location, of course, and i guess there is only so much they can keep, too -- although it is so much easier to store information in the digital age. but if someone is interested in a particular topic, this stuff is invaluable. i imagine that academic libraries with particular focuses might also appreciate donations.

kathy a. said...

that said -- moving is a huge pain in the ass, and sorting materials is another huge pain in the ass. you would not believe the volumes of stuff stashed around my house from the kids alone -- stuff nobody would be interested in, except maybe them. someday. but a lot of it, they'll just be thinking, "WTF? why did she save that?"

if i was a good person, an organized person, i'd be dealing with some of that.