There’s a scene in the first section of The Grapes of Wrath when Ma Joad must decide which possessions to take as she and her family leave Oklahoma. The Joads are now homeless; their future is unknown and they cannot afford, literally or figuratively, to take the past with them. One might assume she’ll take a scrapbook of some sort, that lifeline to a family’s victories and losses. But Ma Joad burns her mementos, as though to declare that the past is over; for better or worse, they are starting from scratch.
Like most people, I’ve had middle-of-the-night anxiety attacks in which I’ve imagined being suddenly homeless, whether by natural disaster or economic doom. What would I take? I have diaries and though I hardly ever look at them, my instinct would be to start there. My children produce enough paperwork to keep a professional archivist busy, but I’d probably try to cull out a dozen choice examples of their early oeuvre. I love to cook and might grab my recipe binder. Though most of it is comprised of articles torn from magazines, as opposed to the tissue-thin handwritten recipes from my grandmother’s time, I could never fully remember or retrieve all of them and their tastes are too dear to be lost.
Going with the handwritten, the personal, the irreplaceable seems to be the impulse. But really, the thing that is more irreplaceable, that holds the most important information, is my computer. After my kids and the pets, it’s my laptop that I’d grab when the flames start to flicker or the floodwaters rise. It’s filled with photo albums, videos, mixed CDs, and even recipes. In fact, two totally irreplaceable items live there alone (and on my back-up): the audio file of my dad talking several months before he died of cancer and the final emails he wrote me. It is the repository Ma Joad never had.
But is there something amiss with our generation that so much of what we hold dear now exists in digital forms? Does our society lose something when we replace the handmade with the pixilated?
Tech Gains, Personal Loss
Michael Chasar, a University of Iowa English professor who collects and studies poetry scrapbooks, which were popular between the Civil War and World War II, says people used to consider such books to be among their most prized possessions. To our modern eyes, they are quaint: collections of yellowed clippings of mainly forgotten poems. What made them so special to their creators was the time involved in their making, the personal relationship of the keeper to the poems, and the individual touches, such as a drawing or the smudge of spilled wine on a particular page. In a way, they are akin to the mixed cassettes my friends and I made each other in high school and college.
While we can save so much more via technology, what we miss are the imperfections. “The glitches in a recording or a person’s odd handwriting go missing. Everything gets flattened out,” notes Chasar.
It’s the personality we miss with the technological archival of our memories, not the stuff. As professional archivists attest, there’s more media out there than ever. It’s not that we won’t have enough to remind us of our past; it’s that it will be devoid of the literal human touch. Blogs, listservs, emails, online minutes, and Facebook entries are all swirling around out there, taunting archivists—and us—to save them. Mainly, we don’t. Case in point: I have all of the handwritten letters between my best friend and me between the end of college and about 1995. But since then, when our conversations moved from the page to the screen, I haven’t printed out and saved a single email. Lost are our musings over children, our marriages, and our careers.
Fewer Material Items, Same Memories
But how much does it matter? I never look at those old letters, and if I did, I’d certainly see my younger self as a naive embarrassment. Perhaps we all keep too many things that attach us needlessly to the past, as opposed to focusing on the present. I learned a good lesson about non-attachment when I was helping a woman write a biography about her son who was killed while on assignment as a photojournalist. The son had been an artist who kept prolific journals. Tattered and falling apart, the journals are complex and practically breathing records of his short life. She loves them, but she doesn’t put them under lock and key. And when a small trove of her son’s photographs went missing during our project, she shrugged. In losing her son, she’s come to hold much more lightly to material things—a good lesson for anyone in our materialistic society.
We are in the process of putting most of her son’s journal pages online. Although it’s not the same experience as holding the heavy books in one’s hands—they are extremely tactile and even have their own unique scent—it will allow countless viewers to see them. This is where the handmade versus technology debate tips in the latter’s favor. As Chasar said, “There’s actually a real bonus to having materials online because it makes them so much more democratically available.”
Technology is also providing an unforeseen lifeline for personal treasures. Via Ebay, collectors scoop up old scrapbooks. One of them, Jessica Helfand, author of the award-winning, Scrapbooks in American Culture, puts her finds in a book and adds them to her Web site; she is also making a documentary film. It’s not just scrapbooks being bought up, though. Photo albums, recipe collections, and postcards are also popular collectibles, many of which become part of new projects.
Cheryl Jacobsen is a calligrapher and artist who incorporates old photographs into pieces. “Sometimes it makes me sad to be taking a sandblaster to the photo of someone I’ll never know,” she admits. “But mainly I feel like I’m giving these images a second life.”
And before we get too precious about handwritten diaries from our grandparents and beyond, let’s remember that this technology debate has been going on for a long time. As one archivist reminded me, “Think how much we lost when the telephone was invented!”