Documenting Hometown History


“As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.”-Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

March 3, 2012, Washington, DC: We dined two weeks ago Nob Hill Cafe, my favorite neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco. From our little table on Taylor Street, we sifted through old photos that accompanied a Huffington Post story published that day on the death of one of the few remaining survivors of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. There atop Nob Hill, we scrolled through photos of the very block where we sat, illustrating it completely leveled from the earthquake and fire that destroyed it more than a century ago. The information was available at our fingertips on our phone, as if we'd dug up an old time capsule.

In a sense, we had. For all the talk of the pitfalls of the digital age, we should recognize some of its greatest assets: History is accessible. Readily available information offers us new perspective and insight into experiences we never knew.

I'm fascinated by efforts to document and digitize history, especially those that reveal more about these places we've lived. A new blog, Ghosts of DC, is busy sharing wonderful, historical tidbits about our city. Digitized photos archived at the Pequot Library in Southport, CT, allowed me to stumble upon gorgeous old images showcasing easily identifiable landmarks still prominent on the hometown landscape.

Fascinating too to consider what future sociologists and historians will find sifting through the information of our day decades from now. Consider how curious and revealing the explosion of the digital age might look in the long view. Consider the benefit to this age of status updates and sharing: We've digitized our proof and our keepsakes, our shoeboxes and our scrapbooks, our journals and our bulletin boards. The information is full of primary sources -- records of what was on the menu there that night, and first-hand accounts of what it was like to raise a child that year in that place, and images revealing what this streetscape looked like just before construction began and transformed this block.

Once upon a time we buried time capsules in the grass. As documentation. As evidence. We created records of specific places and years and people and feelings to dig up later and recall what mattered to us. Now we do that every day. We live in an era of archivists and record keepers.

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