Tag Archives: Archiving

Memoria, Oratio, Scriptura: Truth and Method in Local Histories

By James Johnson

It would seem that History, in subject terms, from every culture and ethnic group, has memory as its precursor to contemporary method, utilized for documenting and understanding linear time, ancestry, and even ethnographic boundaries in retrospect. Memory can externally form in expressive traditions through song, chant, verse, and other articles of art and culture.

Spiritual, artistic, or physical articles of importance manifest a People’s group or individual memories. Transcribed in coastal red cedar totems by some aboriginals of the Pacific Northwest, or in tribute to nature and death carved upon neolithic cairns of some of the first Irish, these exist as tangible artifacts. Artifacts arguably at the crossroads of extinction and resurgent significance.

Oral history, unique to no ethnic group, appears as a cataloguing schema of the natural world, familial genealogical group-sets, and ritual spiritualism. Often perceived as an inferior form of historical collection and dissemination, Oral methodologies are the probable human default. Oral history can serve a culture of “illiterates” with no written language just as well as the culture where class structure dictated one’s likelihood of literacy. Where invention and technology arose to become the barrier breakers to monograph making and acquisition, literacy rates increased. There was an undeniable drive within the medieval peasantry to attain and share knowledge in this new way. Why? Written word, painfully transcribed by hand and in various languages – an ordeal obviously suited to the patience of priestly monks – long predated the German inventor’s newfangled printing press. Of course the sentiments of an illiterate European peasantry furnished with enough gumption to avoid utter despair will permanently be beyond my knowing, but I am willing to make the presumption that literacy was purpose-driven in the pursuit of Truth.

Truth, for some reason or another, is a core ethical tenant embedded in the institutions which I value. Truth in justice, truth in marriage. Truth in the knowledge that I’m buying beef and not man-meat from the grocery store. So imagine now the dichotomy of literate and illiterate groups sharing consensus as to what is Truth based on writ of law. How could anyone expect the disenfranchised not to seek this levelled plane? In the Western Hemisphere, this inequity has been routed with functional literacy rates increasing over time. The proficiency with which the growing or diminishing number of individuals developing critical analysis skills through literacy is a topic for another time.

Truth is a value in the bones of the rural community. The importance of reporting on the dull or exceptional true lives of people is evident in the abundance of early newspapers under various monikers: gazette’s, gleaners, standards, dispatches, and heralds. Keeping and distributing journals of record shared the union of clans, civil administrative machinations, and vociferation’s of the mourning. These isolated publications, those few issues salvaged by forward-thinking preservationists of their respective times, provide for us now an avenue of exploration much deeper than any oral tradition could aspire to. If you wanted to know the price of a pound of bacon or stew chuck in 1841 Upper Canada, and I were to share anecdotally that my great, great, great Grand Pop told his kid, and he told his kid, and so on and so forth, that it cost $0.10 cents a pound, how would you or anyone else know it for truth? Or that coinage wasn’t dollars or cents but pounds, sterling, and pence at that time?

Obviously, written and oral history share a common aspect. They are subject to the experience and subsequent opinion of scribe and speaker alike. The confounding nature of this truth, obfuscating the notion of Truth itself, remains an area of personal interest. However, preferring to adopt a First Nations approach to challenge this hypocrisy; listening to the speaker’s (or writer’s) experiences and respecting their stories as lived experiences. Or some version of it, if you like.

European settlements have a longstanding practice of recording their lives in minute detail. A direct impact of written versus oral histories is evident in the range of volumes produced by counties, townships, and historical societies throughout North America. This abundance of record serves a community in many ways, provided a community acknowledges that it may not represent all contemporary subgroups, a fact apparently less self-evident the more our mindsets shift progressively. It is apparent to most sincere researchers that written records, including census documents, were apt to inconsistency or outright error. This is a reflection of the relationship between oral and written traditions, rather than a condemnation of either. Whether reciting from memory or recalling events in testimony, the potential for error appears for both. Nevertheless, I could tell you the tale of the Sandyford Mystery, a cold blooded Scottish yarn of greed, betrayal, and murder! I might even get half the story right from off the top of my head, and that might be enough for some. For others, there is the near 500 page court proceedings, digitized from microfiche and available here. I value this information, and the method it is presented by, due in great part to my general distrust of strangers. Acknowledging biases in printed opinions, the factors of information processing in person are just as impactful, if not more. These include body language, intonation, level of voice, language or accent barriers, and physical location apprehension. Not to mention the challenge of returning to the materials for clarification.

Nevertheless, regarding either as inferior or superior is not the point. I remain convinced that the two methods are connected by progression. Spoken words become written. Ethnographers and anthropologists embark on fieldwork collecting and cataloguing oral histories and myths as a matter of survival, not some misplaced sense of superiority, though I’m sure the latter sentiment exists, however limited it may be. These oral histories aren’t necessarily the mythological origin stories of the Indians in North America either. Diminishing language and culture in some groups in the British isles is a growing concern for their respective Governments and local leaders.

The banner image for this article displays a collage of local history monographs. Township councils, historical societies, and sometimes impassioned local members, collect records and primary source material to tell the tale of their community’s past. Photographs and land purchase agreements, birth, marriage, and census data. And of course, the stories. Oral stories, parallel the hard data, adds the human element, and in many case confirms doubts or supports beliefs. These books and more like them are critically endangered. The growing ranks of rural ghost towns supports this prediction of doom. Young people can’t write local histories if they aren’t living the reality of them.

I suppose in a way that should be my pitch to counsel. That little town comically presented on the brink of insolvency, victims of Tommyknockers or invading body-snatchers, needs an archivist. A town preservationist, with ties to the community and desire to maintain stories, engage youth, and advocate for funding from all levels of government. Is that the solution to the ghost town epidemic? Not in and of itself but in revitalization efforts, paramount.

Find these old books if you can, while you can. Primary and secondary source material like no other. Specifics will vary by location so ask a Librarian in the geographical area you are interested in researching. For Ontario researchers, listed society websites often sell their own publications or provide tips on where you can find them.

DiscoverySeries: Genealogy

This is part two of a Library Tech Files editorial DiscoverySeries. Click here for the first instalment.



A Matter Of Memory And

The Price of Forgetting

By James Johnson

Approx. 10 minute reading time

As summer winds down with a feeling of wanting, the election results have met my expectations. Sitting at my desk, once again looking out on the leaves changing their hues, the desire to shout ‘I told you so’ at no one in particular is quelled by the piles of books, maps, photographs, jotted notes with ink blots, and grave-rubbings that make my corner a little more crazy. Mysteries upon mysteries continue to stack upon one another, the simplest distraction is delightful and regretfully rejected when the work starts begging to be done.

This feeling of wanting runs deeper than a desire for strong government, or the love of autumn; the search for the Zion Cemetery stones is over. The stones have been found, locked for decades in the darkness of a utility shed on the edge of the village’s most populated cemetery. A thousand times a thousand I have passed these gravestones unaware, sat for hour upon hour over four years across the road from them (the township’s high school sits across from the cemetery, and I still often wonder how the school hasn’t yet the been the setting of a cliched horror movie).

Balanced on the literal edge of the cemetery, the land abruptly ends in a perilous ravine where, without care, the resting place of hundreds will inevitably cascade down upon one another. Including this old rickety shed with a mother skunk living beneath its floorboards. The retired caretaker agreed to meet with me to see if the stones were truly there. With him he brought WD-40 and a crowbar “for convincing”. After some negotiations the lock gave and for the first time in decades light entered that place. The air was almost sweet with decay, when wood and earth have met and married too long. Not wet or humid, the dryness of the air made the smell pleasant. There was no mold or mildew or swirling dust motes. There wasn’t much of anything. Except three distinct marble stones lined against the far wall holding the names of our family. Not two stones, but three. After all, I was looking for two unknown sisters. The first portent of inevitable wanting.

The names on these stones were familiar but unfortunately neither Susan nor Jane’s. The three stones appeared to belong to brothers and wives, possibly already accounted for in the family tree, suggesting these were left behind with newer monuments replacing them at the newly opened cemetery. The dates of birth and death were strange and not what matched my own research, or those newer monuments currently in place. I reminded myself that names were often passed down and commonly shared between cousins and even siblings. But these dates of death predated my family’s earliest settler records. Since our family predates the village’s incorporation, every person sharing my matrilineal name is blood-related, unless by some coincidence a random family with the same surname moved to the same quaint village that has struggled to avoid joining the growing ranks of the dying Canadian town. How, therefore, can these people – their lives and deaths – predate current settlement evidence? The portents of wanting rage.

The story of the Zion Stones was one of chance, luck, and near misses. The first notion of their existence arose during a conversational interview with family. The kind where folks dig deep in the corners of memory, when faces or names connect an axon or two. Eventually a wrinkle of a maybe became a growing confidence, until finally someone said “I’m sure we went down to that old field, where Zion was before, and I think we put two stones the farmer found in the fence row in the back of your Grandpa’s pickup truck.” The near miss came when Grandpa couldn’t recall the event ever happening, as time has gone on his memory has started to slip. The topic of buried relatives on the tree continued to gnaw at me, and helpful family eager to see the story unfold shared their records. They did so with an obvious affection for the people, place, and lives of this assuredly special town. A good deal of this summer has been spent exploring the links these records have provided.

Though certainly a trove of treasure, these items quickly became an added challenge for my already cluttered desk. Using the advice from a previous article on the matter, I set to work preparing the materials for collection. A significant and revolutionary method crucial to modern archiving or forming a family fonds is digitization.

As those of you knowledgeable in archiving or genealogy know, digitization can offer a great deal of benefits for discovery, access, notation, and general organization. Most of the items given to me are scanned copies of originals that have been lost, dispersed, or destroyed. While there are original documents remaining, of which I have had the privileged of examining in person, I have however not been granted permission to digitize them. The method most applicable for these purposes therefore was preventative conservation, rather than any restorative (though the originals are in dire need of both). During an endless night of scanning, notating, and filing, It was during this effort I first discovered the old ream of yellowed paper that first provided insight into the possibility of unknown members of the family. From oral stories to private and public records, the names on the paper I could confirm as the town’s original Beatty’s, Irish immigrants fleeing the famine and crippling subjugation under the English Crown.

Why was this item was of particular concern? In a moment of cleared-eyed reminiscence, at Grandpa’s bedside, he recalled there being told of “two spinsters”. While certainly less palatable today, the term was used in many documents when referring to unmarried women of whatever age. Genealogists are well aware of the rabbit holes married, remarried, widowed, bachelor, and spinster branches can take an unprepared researcher down. Without any follow through records like a marriage certificate or declaration, evidencing a person’s place on your tree (especially going back 100 or 200 years) can be near impossible.

This is a representation, the original has yet to be archived. Photo by Library Tech Files.

So when I saw this unknown record keeper’s scrawled hand the “spinsters” screamed out at me. Confirmation of someone, sometime ago, acknowledging the existence of phantoms. Names to rumours. Running with this new information, I located a Jane and Susan Beatty in the 1871 and 1881 censuses. They were registered as a family adjacent to one of the brother’s farms. Realistically, they probably lived in the farmhouse in the winter, helping to raise the children, then into their own cabin on the same lot near the farmhouse when the seasons warmed. I imagine the brother’s wife and eight children quickly outgrew this space, indicating why these single elderly women lived as a unit on the same land as their brother’s family, albeit separate. Even though they are often deeply flawed, the old censuses provide potentially useful data. In her final census appearance in 1891, Jane Beatty is now 85 years old (probably not accurate) living with her brother’s family. Sister Susan sadly missing from the entry (unfortunately, probably corporeal accurate). Presumably, the sisters would be interred in a tiny cemetery, not a quarter mile from the ancestral farm. As highlighted in a wonderfully useful monograph by one local historian, the village quickly became a beacon of commerce and manufacturing, outgrowing the old necropolis. The remains were moved, the land sold and farmed for the next hundred years, the soil turned again and again, while three marble monuments, swallowed by goldenrod and side-oat, remained wanting along the fence row.

I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t convinced in my heart that when those shed doors swung open, the light of day too would swing the doors of this mystery wide open; and the headstones of the two sisters, long forgotten, would scream their names so loud the none of us would soon forget them. Instead, another mystery prompting yet another quest of uncovering perhaps an even older connection to my family and my hometown barged into a head-space not quite ready to deal with it.

The wanting comes again in finalizing my thoughts on the matter of the Lost Stones of Zion. How the names engraved unto them not only affirmed the perceived perpetual silence of the sisters whose names, births, lives, and deaths I remain unable to verify, but proffered a resolution for which I may not be ready to accept. That for all efforts to reclaim memory, It may be that I am not meant to know these women. How can a single word – Spinster – be all that remains of their memories? Are they the “village” for which raising not one but many children requires? A shoulders to bare the burden of loss; the neutral voices of embittered kin-conflicts; the steady hands delivering under candlelight the babies of other women, raising them as quiet guardians and favoured aunties. The wanting remains in the passing into oblivion of all their choices, decisions, dreams, creations, and contributions as a growing unshakable truth.

I acknowledge that this type of certaine fin thinking conjugates with the fear in the corner of my mind persistently engaged with the truth of my eventual and certain death. This is not a rare obsession; it infects you all. It just takes time and the right nudge. My sophomore year of university, I met a girl and the story goes about the same as any other. All that can and will be said is it didn’t go well, though we certainly had our fun when she was sober. One thing she left me with, besides a regretfully apathetic direction in life, was a newfound respect and paranoia for death’s obliteration. She was acutely aware of her own demise, or at least the spectre of it, and made sure I was too. Moreover, she made sure I knew that nothing I did mattered and that nothing would be left when I was gone. I know this came from a dark place for her, but it resonated as a lesson I have never forgotten. I’m happy to say I don’t think she is the same person today as the one I knew then, and for the better.

The lesson she taught me is it that it can go one of two ways. We can be forgotten among the fence rows just as easily as venerated on marble. In family records, the footprints of your having been here exist in photos, ticket stubs, old ledgers, journals, receipts, and promises on postcards. All this mess swirls online, especially for my fellow “Millenials”. Sure, you have ten thousand pictures of your face with silly filters, but do you have them really? How much control do you have of the cloud, or of the third-party social media platform curating your entire life? How much control do you want? Do yourself a favour and get organizing, or hand it off to a family member showing the most passion for preserving these artifacts of your own existence. Otherwise accept that even with today’s connected and self-publishing landscape, there will be a time when what makes you you, is no longer remembered.

A brighter side…

Despite the hard truth of knowing the Lost Stones of Zion probably will never bring back the memories of the forgotten sisters, hope springs eternal thanks to a group in the Netherlands that have done Canada an unforgettable service; by maintaining and honouring the graves of fallen Canadian soldiers from WW2. During this summer’s investigation into the family tree I was able to learn about John Edward Johnson and his sacrifice, to see his face and where he rests. This incredible organization seeks to preserve and honour the memories of those who served and died during the country’s liberation from Nazi Germany. Thanks to these dedicated individuals, time won’t be able to take his memory from my family, and though I may not be able to visit his grave, I can talk with him at the click of a button. For this I am truly grateful.

If you should take with you but one thing from my family tree genealogy experience so far, let it be this: you have at your disposal to either begin recording your story, or begin preserving the chapters passed down to you from your ancestors. Whichever way, you owe a responsibility to the roots, branches, leaves, and fruits of your growing family tree to steward your artifacts, tell and retell stories, and remember the lives that come before, so those of us ahead may not be left in wanting.

* A note to that linked article about dying Canadian towns: I agree with Campbell’s premise on the nature of the ever moving Canadian, however dispersion of traditions and values into surrounding communities in a jumping-ship fashion shouldn’t be considered the normal course of a town’s life cycle. With respect, our towns have souls of their own. Too few today acknowledge the living nature and growing history of a physical place. I understand and respect that reconciliation in our conversations today is crucial and both our first nations’ and settler histories and places should be preserved for all knowledge seekers.

Archivist or Hoarder?

Prioritizing Personal Property and Tossing out the Trash

“A couple of bankers boxes should tidy this place up…”

Estimated reading time for this article: 5 mins

By James Johnson

Today marks the start of the 70th annual Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Mental Health week. Looking out my office window I can see the birds reclaiming their posts in the iridescent foliage bursting with fresh buds. A smell of midday BBQ wafts up through the open window and transports me to a promised land: the return of Spring, the precursor to the dog days of summer weather and baseball. With the Government’s assurance of community-wide immunization, a blessed return to normal is on the horizon.

As I ponder this wonderful future, I’m reminded of the benefits of Spring’s arrival. The shutters are flung open, offering a welcoming blast of cool, clean, refreshing air. The mental relief from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is palpable. And as one relishes this new sense of natural freedom, the cascading dust motes and creeping cobwebs jar reality back to the fore. There’s clearly some work to be done.

Spring cleaning takes on many forms for many people. It can take form in yard work and de-winterizing a property. One of my chores as a kid was to crawl under the house to the outside water valve to turn it back on after the winter thaw, so we could water the flower beds. Often times in spring, my brother and I would be tasked with sorting and cleaning out the garage, sharpening the garden and lawn tools, and taking trips to the county dump.

This exercise of sorting the clutter from the crucial served more than the purpose of tidying. Taking stock of what you have and what you need (or don’t need, as is most often the case) allows the home/work/play space to remain inventoried and relevant. A good rule of thumb, say in a home handy-workshop, is to categorize the tools and materials by storing or displaying them according to group and size. When stock is depleted (screws, nails, solvents) it’s easy to know when to replenish it. Organizing our things in a structured manner also helps determine what is essential to us. Out of place tidbits usually get tossed.

The satisfying results of organization demonstrated in the image above not only indicates an organized workplace but an organized mental space. Much of our mental health concerns can be attributed to the quality of our living spaces and how well we care for our persons in private. A strong indication of good health is a clean living space, both in organization and hygiene. Far too often we neglect these spaces by overcrowding them with the uncatagorized. Just the other day I was filing mail that had been left to pile on my desk. After writing on last week’s periodical review I still hadn’t sorted and filed the current issues, resulting in a backlog of completed and yet to be reviewed titles.

I managed to sort out my workspace fairly quickly thanks to some preparation and a simplified classification system anyone can customize to suit their needs. For instance, an often overlooked yet crucial aspect of data redundancy is the hard copy element. It’s also often overlooked that physical representations of data, when stored appropriately, can stay safe and unharmed for hundreds or even thousands of years. On the other hand, digital data loss can occur as quickly as a snap of the finger. Demagnetization, a small drop from a short height, or even an ounce of water can wipe away an entire family’s historical record from a hard drive. For my part, the most important documents are scanned and saved on an external hard drive. The hard copy is filed in the appropriate section of my personal records. This is the most affordable and simplistic home-brew data redundancy methodology and it works great for me.

Alternatively, Cloud based solutions are finally at such an affordable price that securing your data digitally has never been more accessible. But that data, as soon as it leaves your hands, is no longer truly in your control. No doubt you’ve given those privileges away in your user agreement. Alternatively, you can set up your own cloud servers at home, using a RAID setup with network sharing. This can be costly and technologically challenging to the general public, serving as solution for the more privacy-focused individuals bent on preserving their data.

In my case, our family does not need comprehensive data storage services. We are not operating any businesses, save for self-enterprise. Our needs are simple, and so too should the solution: a device’s internal storage for convenient access, externally through solid state hard drives as back-up, and hard-copy for long-term preservation.

Hard-copy is integral, and I’ll give you an example as to why. One tax season, we forgot to declare an income line and were audited. Failure to supply the document could have resulted in serious fines. Thanks to our hard copy organization system, the document was located quickly, scanned, uploaded and received within minutes. It was stress free. Can you say the same of your tax season experiences?

Not only must we keep our spaces organized, so too must we keep our information. Acknowledging hard-copy’s value in data redundancy, filing and storing using colour codes and alphabetization is as easy as it can be. We have several large, water tight bins that stack and allow for quick access using vertical hanging file folders, similar to the image below.

Files” by T a k is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Whatever method you end up employing, data collection, storage, and maintenance should be tailored to your needs. Photo-focused and intent on capturing life’s precious moments? Structure your digital photo library with hierarchies, nested folders, and date points. Most stock operating systems come with organization tools in their photo-viewers. Researching ancient civilizations and cross-continental genealogies? Hard copy those documents for preservation and reference. The outcome should be the same.

Organize your spaces and the information you store in them. Shake off the primal need to save everything for that rainy day. Focus on the essentials first. Taking stock in what you value is no small task and you may find yourself losing enthusiasm as the “keep” pile quickly outgrows the “toss” pile. Don’t be discouraged. Instead, take a break and return to sorting after some time. You may find that a little time and a second pass can help make it easier to reassess an items value.

Most importantly, have fun with it. This is an exercise where the singular purpose is to benefit your work space and mental well being. Stay healthy and remember to reach out to someone if you’re experiencing mental or physical distress. And finally, I ask that if you enjoyed this article and wish to see more content like it, please consider commenting and sharing on your social media.