Saturday, May 15, 2010

Video Biographies: The value of personal archives and family documents

For almost a month now, I have been volunteering a few hours of my day on a weekly basis at an archives and research library here at Austin, TX. Personal archives (and not just my own!) have held my attention for a while now, and I'm fortunate that in creating video biographies for others, I inadvertently get to share in their narrative. I get to know their stories and often come in direct contact with the records of their past. Photographs, newspaper clippings, journals, letters etc.

This got me curious.

Would the documents of complete strangers hold an appeal if they were not 'clients'? Is there anything substantial to be gained by the stories of others if they lived a hundred years ago - with nothing common between us except that we have walked the same ground at different points in history? Hence the visits to the archives library.

The answer is yes.

Of course I learned things each time I visited. I had never encountered a fluting iron before. It's what they used back in the day to add frills and pleats to clothes. Or bullet moulds. Rusted and creaky but innovative and efficient nonetheless. One cent coins from the turn of the 20th century... and hidden between them, an official looking brass coin with the words 'Good for one drink' barely legible. Interesting, it would appear people had a sense of humor even then. Medals from wars. Commemorative plates celebrating presidents. Lace hair bands worn by anonymous women. Meat grinding machines and cannon balls.

These archives and documents may belong to people I was never acquainted with but they told countless stories and pieced together a glimpse of my world as it used to be. Of society and community. Of history and world events. Of local news and gossip. Things were different back then. Then again, not as much as I would have thought.

And that's what stands to be gained from documenting each of our personal histories. It is a way of acknowledging a life well lived, yes, but it is also a way of communicating how we live to the people who will come after us. So that they can make sense of our journey. And through that, their own.


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