Individuals and organizations all have things from their past that they wish hadn’t happened or had been handled differently. This can be as minor as that eighth-grade haircut or as serious as middle school bullying. It can be as horrifying as knowing your ancestors owned slaves. It can be as shameful as learning about racist policies and procedures implemented in your organization’s past.
With Harvard and other leading universities seeking to ban or effectively eliminate single-gender organizations by sanctioning their members, sororities and fraternities are under attack.
It’s not the first time.
I first got to know the magnetic William Hudnut, III not through that twinkle in the eye, the baritone voice, or the signature “Hudnut Hook.” Instead, I got to know this larger-than-life personality through historical documents preserved thanks to a visionary partnership between the University of Indianapolis and digital history pioneer HistoryIT .
As most baseball fans know, the Cleveland Indians are battling right now for their first World Series title since 1948.
That 1948 team was stacked with future Hall of Famers: Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Bob Lemon, Joe Gordon and Satchel Paige. But one Hall of Famer who wore the Cleveland Indians uniform in the first half of the 20th century doesn’t look natural in it at all.
Pittsburgh Pirates’ great Honus Wagner was known for his bat. Not just figuratively–he led the National League in batting eight times and finished with a .328 career batting average–but for his actual baseball bat, the lumber he gripped in his hands. He preferred a 33 inch bat weighing over 40 ounces, massive by today’s standards, with a thick handle and small knob.
The Jackie Robinson Scrapbook, recently digitized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and HistoryIT, is a collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, and even baseball cards compiled by a fan, Jack Donovan, during Robinson’s career. Among the many illustrations is a photograph that is perhaps the most famous photos ever from a minor league game.
Baseballs, uniforms, gloves and bats—these are the types of artifacts that come to mind when thinking of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But there’s another fascinating type of artifact that many people might not consider and haven’t been able to see: scrapbooks.
Today, when thousands of photographs and documents can be stored on our phone or on a thumbdrive in our pocket, it’s easy to forget the importance scrapbooks once had in preserving history. Photographs were difficult and expensive to obtain, and newspapers were bulky to store. If someone wanted to collect documents, newspaper articles, photos and other ephemera, the one of the best ways to compile them was in a scrapbook.
I read the April 2nd Washington Post article about the discovery of the missing patent documents for the Wright brothers’ “flying machine” with mixed emotions. As an historian, I am thrilled that determined archivists were able to track down what is universally regarded as a national treasure, missing – likely due to being misfiled – for more than thirty years. As a digital innovator, I see another example of celebrating “history saved” obfuscating the serious reality that our history is in danger, and I am frustrated.
Our historical information is stuck in the past. For the most part, cultural heritage organizations are failing to connect the modern online population with our historical resources. I believe that the public needs to interact with evidence and stories from our past in order to build a thoughtful, informed society. And in order to interact with it, they need access to it – digital access. It’s not our technology – or lack thereof – that is relegating our meaningful evidence of the past to a small pool of elite researchers who are charged with finding and interpreting its meaning once they have located it in a remote physical archive, or even in a digital archive. At the root, the persisting problem is a cultural one or, perhaps more accurately put, a behavioral one. Our cultural heritage organizations are still utilizing analog practices, even within the digital world.
At HistoryIT, we build, support, and enhance digital archives. We are committed to developing creative approaches, through which archives become powerful, engaging tools, accessible and meaningful to diverse audiences beyond the traditional researcher. Why do we do this? And why is it so critical to get this work done NOW? What’s the rush? I answer these questions in my TEDx Dirigo Talk about The Future of History.