Blog Post

Moving and Maybe Hoarding History

Moving and Maybe Hoarding History

It's been almost a year since I last posted to my HASTAC blog. I cannot believe that so much time has passed. In the last six months, i have been installed in a new position at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The school is located in Marshall County, whereI have deep roots going back to a time when my father's family were slaves in this part of the state. 

I made the move to Mississippi for several reasons, one of them being that I desired to reconnect to my family's past. I had an urge to walk where my ancestors walked and toiled. I also wanted to see other places in northwest Mississippi and Southwest, Tennessee, from whence other African Americans included in the Civil War document I've been working on for two years now, The Register of Freedmen, came. Living here has allowed me this. I have regular occasion to travel the area's backroads and, in so doing, I cross many of the same paths the Union Army did and African American freedmen did during the war.

Though I live in Mississippi, I, for no reason worth mentioning, do my banking across the state line in Tennessee, in a no longer sleepy town by the name of Collierville. When the need arises, I go there, sometimes by one road--Hwy 311 through Mt. Pleasant--and sometimes by another--Hwy 178 to the Byhalia Rd. Less often, I travel to Olive Branch, which has an old side, a mixed income and I suspect mixed race neighborhood south of the highway and a quaint shopping district with florists, antique stores, and independent restaurants to the north. I do not tend to venture beyond Pigeon Roost Rd. since doing so would put me out on the main thoroughfare to compete with drivers aiming for Home Depot and Walmart. I have no issue with such stores, (well, okay, I do but not to the point of protest), yet jetting down America's highways defeats my attempts to enjoy the scenery. I like to drive slowly enough both to see the passing landscape and, just as importantly, to remember what I've seen. It is a goal that I fail to achieve most of the time, and an example would be with Pigeon Roost Rd. 

Just the other day, I was looking through my notes on Gen. U.S. Grant's papers, jottings I had scribbled a couple of years ago, when I had no idea I would come to live in Mississippi. I was consulting the notes in order to get a clear picture of which roads federal forces had traveled. I had highlighted all of the state's roads and towns in red, so when I came across Pigeon Roost it jumped off the page, yet, I still had to sit down a while to remember which grown up-overnight town, now suburb, this particular road bordered. Once the answer came to me, I was up and running. I think I realized for the first time, as strange as it may seem, that I was indeed traveling the same roads as fugitives seeking freedom 150 years ago. Where the troops went, black freedom seekers followed. On January 3, 1863, two days after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and less than two weeks after Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn's raid on Holly Springs, Brig. Gen. Isaac Quinby informed Grant that he had given notice to whites along "the road to Memphis" that they would be removed from their homes if it were required to secure the railroad. The cotton that they were taking with them as they were fleeing the area would be confiscated and redistributed to others in the area who had taken The Loyalty Oath. This is what Quinby claimed he would do, with his leader's approval. And what of their slaves? The answer is that those who were not "refugeed," who were not, that is, spirited away by their masters to "safer" places, indeed were on that road to Memphis.

My own ancestors were among the masses of blacks traveling roads whose names, in many cases, have not changed. Recently, I took a weekend and intentionally traveled their likely paths. I went as far as Saulsbury, to where ancestors of genealogist Angela Walton-Raji's family probably walked. The 32-mile drive took me just under an hour (though I somewhat lost my sense of time as I stopped to take pictures along the way). Travelling Highway 7, mostly north but also somewhat easterly, I tried my best to take in the landscape, in some areas February-gray kudzo draped over century-old trees still standing and in other areas mile-long wetlands. I couldn't help but to think of Mary Paralee, Walton's great aunt, who spoke of losing some of the original travelers who had aimed for Saulsbury from Tippah County.

To the east of the road north I spotted an elevated section of rail, atop a structure built of wood that had withstood the test of time. The railroad, barely visible from the highway nevertheless paralleled it all the way into Tennessee, into Grand Junction where Grant ordered then Col. John Eaton to open the first contraband camp. I took lots of photos there and was  pleased to find two railroads, The Mississippi Central (in the 19th century) and The Memphis and Charleston, coming together in this important Union stronghold. There are few intentional signs in this historic town left of its important past. Like most of these old haunts, progress has grown up not within but around. Yet, the town is still built around the railroad. It remains the center.  

It has taken me months to come to terms with the fact that I have at least begun the task of reconnecting my present life to this really not-so-distant past. It certainly felt more distant before my move. In these past months, I suppose I have been collecting information, not just data, historic facts, documents and such. As I've traveled backroads, at a slower, humane pace, I have been collecting images and storing them in my brain for later use. I have trusted myself that I would in fact soon retrieve them as I look to synthesize what I know, what I've seen, the past with the present. For me, the sharing hasn't come soon enough really. I've been anxious about the task before me, making the past not to mention its relationship to the present, intelligible and, yes, interesting. I started with my students, just sharing bits and pieces, trying not to overwhelm them. Perhaps I devoted three classes to African American emancipation in northwest Mississippi (and southwest Tennessee). Our Millennials have seemed mildly interested; they've been polite anyway. They ask relatively few questions, most of them do, and I get a definite message that they are really, really encapsulated within their present constructions. I do not judge them for that; it's certainly a condition I share with them. I'm only consciously, or as consciously as I know how to be, in recovery from similar constructions and reconstructions. This is a fact that was I think confirmed one day when, after some of my sharing, one very bright political science major, taking me for advanced writing, remarked, "You're a...history hoarder." "A what?" I asked her. "You hoard history." I sat for a minute attempting to take in what she had said. Was this a judgment of me? She'd offered her view of me with a smile. But I must have looked hurt or at least shocked by her description of my doings, because, she chuckled, then apologized. "I'm just kidding," she said. I didn't know if I should accept her apology, because, well, I didn't believe that she had been kidding. What she had said had been too original, born of the moment, apt. Yet the thing was I had never thought of myself as any kind of hoarder, I who was so interested in sharing I was at any given time bursting at the seams. It is why I teach! So, of course, I wanted to figure out this painful judgment. Initially, I appeased myself with this: to the present generation all historians, if not all professors, are hoarders of knowledge. We are thought to hoard not because we do not pass on what we know; we are thought to hoard because we know--too much, it seems. Anyone who is living in the present and who has at his or her fingertips endless entertainments, real pleasures that theoretically can allow one to sail pretty smoothly through the modern plane of existence--if one is so inclined--and yet chooses for some strange reason to become occupied with the past, is, according to my student, a hoarder of history. And this, her smile seemed to suggest, is not a desirable condition, when one has the option to do and to be otherwise.  

Who are America's other history hoarders? Are they elders who don't pass on family history, professors who never manage to give to their students all that they know, archivists whose work--as important as it is--involves collecting and cataloging, filing away and preserving artifacts that will only be viewed by a relative few, or digital humanists, who well know how The Web widens access but who may not have yet found a way to reach a really large swath of the public? How can we make our students interested? Just as importantly,  how can we discover and practice a new ethics of information and knowledge, one that will be welcomed rather than rejected?

You may view images of my recent travels here.

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11 comments

This is a collaborative response written during an Early Modern World history class.


 


Who are America’s other history hoarders?


Some of the other people whom we identified were politicians because there are things that happen that they do not tell us.  Winners of wars can also be considered hoarders because they hide what they don’t want people to know.  Specifically, they do not tell the story of the losers from the loser’s point of view.  We don’t know the loser’s point of view because the winners erased it.


Elders who don’t pass on family history?


To some extent, we see elders as hoarders because they leave out what they don’t want other people to know.  Sometimes it is reasonable that they hoard history such as when a grandfather who fought in WWII does not want to share some of his experiences.  However, if people do not ask the elders questions, the elders cannot be considered hoarders.


Professors who never manage to give to their students all that they know?


Professors don’t have time to share everything they know, so we don’t consider them to be hoarders.  In addition to professors, no one has the time to share everything that they know.  Some professors are hoarders when they have a bias and deliberately leave out parts of history that do not fit their bias.  Sometimes, professors might have limitations imposed on them by rules or guidelines for the course.


Archivists whose work involves collecting and cataloguing?


Archivists are not hoarders because they are not keeping the information for themselves.  Their job is to catalogue information so that others can access it.  However, they need to figure out ways to publicize it better. They also need to find ways to make access easier.


Digital humanists?


At this time, we are not comfortable discussing the role of digital humanists because we are not knowledgeable enough about what they do.


How can we make our students interested?


Let students ask questions.  For example, you introduced the building under the bridge, we wanted to know more about it.  You also need to “make” them ask questions by applying it to something they are interested in today.


How can we discover and practice a new ethics of information and knowledge, one that will be welcomed rather than rejected?


Not even our professor is comfortable with his understanding of the ethics of information and knowledge to explain it to us.  So we can’t address this issue today.

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This is a very, very remarkable exchange.  Professor McLeod writes about both doing personal history (genealogy) and talking about it.  A student in class calls her a "history hoarder."  And then she posts about the exchange and another class of students, who I happen to be connected to historically, writes a class response.   (I'm connected to this class because they are the undergraduate students of one of my first-ever doctoral students).  The way the questions spin out into a virtual, interactive forum--reaching far beyond the walls of the classroom in both time and space--seems to me to be a taste of a future to come.  Thanks to all of you for your adventurous spirit and for giving and passing on your histories in this very intriguing way.  

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Wow. Thanks Professor Berg and Early World History class for such thoughtful responses.


I probably should have said more about what I understood to be my student's definition of hoarding. To her, I am a hoarder because I am so interested in history. She sees me as someone who, in her words, "collects and seeks out all the past memories that people have thrown away." She suggests that she values such collecting. For instance, she writes further: "At the time, these stories may have been worthless or insignificant to many. But today, the things she finds make me speechless." It seems to me that my student is evaluating my occupation both against what she may perceive to be America's  view of the past (devaluation of history) and her own sense or faith that memories are important even within such a context. I am interested in knowing why she is speechless when she hears me speak of the past. My best guess is that she has not perhaps in other places (outside of our classroom) yet found or become a part of deeply rich discursive spaces that would make my storytelling a norm. I am intrigued by her speechlessness, however, which suggests to me that she is not without her own thoughts but instead full of them. So maybe a more important question for me as her professor is not simply how to make students more interested in history but how to encourage and empower them to release their own sense of past that they hold within. Of course, I may not have any of this right, my interpretations, that is. Shortly after my student offered her comment in class, I told her that I would likely write about it, and she was excited to have me do so.                                                                                                                                            


In my initial post, I moved from the student's comment to a study of the relationship between my own relocation and new job responsibilities (and the effect of both on my time) and my continued research into the area's Civil War history. I was thinking about how time constraints (or the way in which my life is structured by my new job) keep me, perhaps in ways similar to my student, from being able always when I want to speak or write. Being full yet unable to express what is within may be a type of hoarding, yet for my student even people who actively share what is within are hoarders. By her definition, then, archivists, though they do share some of what they preserve might still be considered hoarding. Why? I'm uncertain, but I think that the student's definition is strongly influenced again by culture. In a world that moves very quickly and is constantly inventing new things, collecting the past and speaking of the past are not very deeply valued. I am developing my own definition of figurative hoarding partly from what I take to be my student's view of history's devaluation. For me, somewhat different than for my student, archivists would be hoarders not just because they have interest in history but because their institutions and their positions are underfunded; they belong to a structure which makes it possible only to collect so much and only to share so much of what is collected. In this case, hoarding, akin to holding, storing, or reserving, materials may be unavoidable. (And in my opinion the good of the act of collecting outweighs an institution's inability to share more.) Still, I think it is appropriate to view institutions within the structures that admittedly both fund and limit funding. An archive or a library, for example, may certainly wish for more money in order to do more, but such institutions accept at the same time present reality.


Perhaps a more concrete example would help. I came to work on The Register of Freedmen by finding it at the National Archives. I believe the record had been there for many, many years (maybe fifty). I could only experience the privilege of viewing the record if I or a kindly benefactor would finance a visit to the site. Simply put, my access to this important record depended upon private funding. (Application for public funding was soundly rejected, but that's another story for another day.) If you have read previous posts, you may know that my own ancestors are included in this register of three thousand persons. Had I not thought to or had I not been able to finance my own trip to Washington, D.C., I would likely today know nothing either of Civil War registers, of contraband camps, or of my ancestors' time in one. Given the structure in which the National Archives must function, it must depend on people like me who use their private money to gain access to public records. I do not mean to suggest that this is all bad. Certainly, public monies fund the Archives, and, one could argue that the kind of structure within which we live enables a private citizen like me to be able to afford such travel. Yet, I cannot help but to think of the millions of individuals who may not be able to afford access. When I think about all that is contained within the National Archives against the very little that the public will ever see, this situation strikes me as...well...wrong, maybe even unjust. When it comes to The Register of Freedmen, we're talking about a record that literally has the ability to return to possibly hundreds of thousands of African Americans ancestors they may not ever have known. The "hoarding" of such information because making it more available is dependent upon private money adds so much insult to injury.


I would like to say more about professors as hoarders, but I have perhaps written too much! I would only add that we too work within a structure, one that influences what work gets done and one that influences also the time we have to devote to it. In a recent review of a fairly new book on Civil War pension records its editors introduced their work by expressing excitement at this new treasure-trove for scholars. They made a point of suggesting the records' value to scholars. But I have learned that these files contain Civil War narratives, testimonies of former slaves that have the potential, like the registers, to reconnect African Americans with their ancestors. While I understand both the editors' excitement and value the work that may be done on the pension files, the way in which the editors value these records--the way in which they will use these records--privileges but a small group of people. Those most directly connected to Civil War pension files likely will not have information contained in the books of scholars trickle down to them.


So finally, a "new ethics of information and knowledge" would result from shifting our minds away from culture and structure that normalize limited access to information and knowledge. I wonder if my student has thought about choice when it comes to the hoarding that I do, or when it comes to her own speechlessness, her pause. It is my hope that digital humanists can through their activities make so much more information available to the public and that social media will help cure speechlessness.


Thanks again for giving such serious thought to this issue. And thank you Dr. Davidson for creating the forum. I look forward to your responses should you choose to continue our discussion. Should we do so, I am certain I can get my wonderful student to join us.


 


 


 

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This posting was written by Monique, a student in my Early World History Course.

 


It is intriguing that because of moderen day technology, you can extend knowledge and response over a span of 1,000s of miles.  Interaction is now not only within one particular classroom or one particular school, but interaction has evolved in the sense that it can intertwine throughout many classes in an infinite number of schools anywhere in this world.


 

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We talked about this exchange yesterday, Fiona Barnett (Director of HASTAC Scholars) and me, at a Franklin Humanities Institute Workshop on collaboration for doctoral students and others.   Wonderful exchange, so generous on everyone's part.  Thank you for sharing so many interesting ideas.

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This comment was sent to me by Professor Alexa Azzopardi and is reprinted here with her permission.

Response to comment:  "Archivists are not hoarders because they are not keeping the information for themselves. Their job is to catalogue information so that others can access it. However, they need to figure out ways to publicize it better. They also need to find ways to make access easier."

 

I would contest that many archivists are hoarders.  Way back when I was a library science student and taking Intro to Library Science, we were doing an assignment where we broke up into groups and did presentations on the various types of libraries and the specialized work that they did.  The group on archives took us to the Reuther Library at Wayne State.  One thing you should know about most archives is that they are "closed stacks" which means you can't just go in and start digging around - or even walk around.  You have to KNOW what you want and ask for it to be delivered to you in a special room.  Because we were library science students, we were given a behind-the-scenes tour.  I saw a book sitting on a shelf and asked if I could see it.  The archivist got absolutely paranoid and asked me WHY I wanted to see it!  (She was actually QUITE upset at my request!)  My explanation that it was an old book that looked interesting wasn't enough of a reason to let someone touch HER precious book.  Even though I knew I was going into another branch of library science, it forever turned me off to archivists.  They don't really want their materials touched, so digitalization is a great way to make it more available but ONLY IF it doesn't damage the original item - that's a huge sticking point with archivists - and that's IF it can be digitalized!   Pictures can be easily digitalized, but some memorabilia like a book, shawl or other 3-D piece is much harder to convey electronically.


 

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While reading the exchanges on hoarding history, I could not help but think of my mother who, during the last few years of her life, devoted many hours to compiling the family genealogy.  Initially she was a hoarder, not unlike the archivist that Professor Azzopardi cited in her response.  She didn't hesitate to make the observation that we could have everything once she was dead.  My mother was a very generous person and I never understood why she hoarded the family genealogy.

In April 2008, my mother was faced with a life defining choice after she decided to stop treatment for the cancer that had invaded her body.  Would she fulfill her dream of publishing a book; something she always wanted to do before died?  Or would she devote herself to the genealogy?  It was not realistic that she would have time to do both.

Generosity won out and my mother decided to devote herself not only to compiling genealogical information but in sharing it.  She considered this to be her final gift for her family.  Because I agreed to help her share the family genealogy, we decided to do it digitally by creating the Liberacki-Wilcox-Berg genealogical website.  In a matter of a few weeks, my mother went from historical hoarder to digital humanist.

Whatever my mother gave up when she stopped hoarding did not compare to the gains she received when she began to share.  The joy she gave to her family was reflected back onto her.  Ironically, the more she gave away, the more she gained.

A year after my mother’s death, I decided to take her place as the family genealogist.  I was able to build on her work and have continued to make sharing my research a primary concern.  Because of the time and effort it takes to digitize materials, I will always have a backlog of work to complete.  But not being able to get material on-line and keeping the material from being shared are two very different things.

Once winter semester ends, I plan to take the next logical step of working as a digital humanist in charge of family records.  I have already purchased the software that will allow me to publish my working notes so anyone with an Internet connection can make use of them. 

Although the genealogy is invaluable, there is no value in hoarding the materials I have compiled.  While I like to compile information in ways that are similar to Dr. McLeod, I realize that I am not diminished by sharing history.

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Professor Azzopardi,

What an interesting story. I do wonder what's at the root of the territoriality or possessiveness. Maybe it's simply practical, i.e. concern over the long-term effects of residue from so many hands. Whatever the reason, we'd better get an archivist in on the conversation. One of my best new friends is an archivist. Hopefully, I can get her to join us.

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Professor Berg,

Thank you so much for sharing this. It's such an important story. I am touched and inspired.

A couple of days ago, I journaled about my father and his siblings, three of whom are or were (two are deceased) hoarders. I have always wondered about the behavior of the hoarders. I have wondered if they hoarded as a way to deal with a sense of loss. Though I arrive at this question somewhat late (I've been studying our family for years), it has always been at the edges of my thinking about the family's emotional adjustments after migrating north from Mississippi. The two siblings who did not hoard, my father and my eldest aunt, were most forthcoming with stories about family life in the South; however, these two had other self-debilitating behaviors.

I am deeply intrigued by the question of whether there is a relationship between movement or migration and compulsive activities including both collecting and hoarding. I also have examined my own interests, passions, and behaviors--my journaling, blogging, and writing in general, as well as genealogical work--to consider if there is a relationship between these occupations and being the daughter of African American migrants. Given these interests, I am fascinated by your taking up the genealogy work your mother began and also by your mother's decision to share.

In a blog post from last year, I described an ongoing desire of mine to get beneath surfaces. I shared in brief a project of removng aluminum siding from my home. The point of that story was to suggest that for me modernity, partly "achieved" through migration, was not fully satisfying. The world that my elders tried to create for their offspring through leaving the past behind was received by me as superficial. I mean no disrespect to them of course for trying to offer me a "better" life. Anyway, the dissatisfaction with their construction of the present is what led to my genealogical work and passion for writing.

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This is a really interesting conversation! Some really fascinating interaction here - and on a topic that I feel so closely connected to.

I'm the Archivist (and an Associate Librarian) at Indiana University South Bend. As an archivist, I feel that ethics are really a part of what I do each and every day. I feel that what I do has a broad moral purpose, and I take that role very seriously. My primary role is to collect, preserve, and make accessible the records of my campus and my surrounding community. And perhaps what I feel most passionate about in that Big Troika of 'collection, preservation, and access' is the access part of it.

As an archivist - and a librarian - my profession is one that is severely stereotyped (which is a whole other discussion, not for today or this spot!)... And as Alisea rightly points out, severely underfunded - and yes, underpaid.

This has been a fascinating discussion on many levels (and not just the discussion of archivists of course). I agree with you, Alisea - I think that archivists have the potential to be hoarders - if only because of that two-fist-punch in the gut of our institutions being underfunded and being underpaid. Mostly they join together in so so many institutions - if they even have someone to take care of their historical records - in having an archivist position only part-time, and often only one in a repository who's expected to do a jillion things in each working day.

That being said, I don't think that archivists are hoarders because I'd say that something that we all tend to hold close to our hearts is believing that our role is to get that preserved history out to the public. It's actually a very-easy-to-profile bit about us that's easy to characterize/generalize us by! Which is, of course, quite different than the stereotype of quiet, introverted folks squirreled away in basements or attics - take your pick (I really don't know where this comes from - wierd) hunching over 'dusty' (we work against that - that's the preservation part!) records that never see the light of day...

- Professor Azzopardi, I'm really sorry that you had the experience that you did at Wayne State at the Reuther Archives... I might wonder with Alisea that there were not outside factors that made that happen? In fact, my alma mater is Wayne State - and I had much the opposite experience in both course work in the Reuther - and then as a student worker at the Reuther. And now those archivists are my colleagues - and some that I esteem the most through the country...

And I believe that the digital realm is allowing us to make those records available to people all over the world at any time in all new ways. It's all very exciting! The hitch, is, of course, the potentially prohibitive cost of that digitization. (thus we loop back to that Catch 22 bit)

A last note - there's an excellent article on all of this that might be good further reading: James O'Toole's "Archives and Historical Accountability: Toward a Moral Theology of Archives" that appeared in the 2004 issue of the Canadian journal, Archivaria: http://www.synergiescanada.org/journals/bcn/archivaria/417/12476 .

Thanks for letting me a part of this interesting exchange!!

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Thanks Alison for your thoughtful response and for the link. I am reading it slowly and meditating on it. 

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