I was told by a friend who studies material culture that my house is “an Americanist wet dream.” This is not the first I’ve heard of this. Many moons ago I had all male roommates who used to joke that my section of our loft looked like a TGIFridays. To say I find value in the original and analog would be an understatement. I’m drowning in books. I’m the keeper of thousands of family photos. I play vinyl records far more often then I’ll scroll through my iTunes or pop on Pandora.
My favorite place on Earth, my Disneyland if you will, is called the Museum of Fond Memories, also known as Jim Reed Books, in Birmingham, Alabama. I get giddy even thinking about it. It is floor to ceiling STUFF. Books, magazines, barbie dolls, Christmas lights, postcards, lawn ornaments, happy meal figurines. While the books are somewhat organized by theme, the rest is just piles to dig through. Rooms lead into more rooms. Old mailboxes open and are filled with love letters and postcards. Boxes almost invite you to dig through them. Everything is haggled for like at a garage sale. The physicality of objects inspires memories and a connection to an object in a way that 1’s and 0’s and metadata fields cannot do justice to. The store truly is a museum of memories. As Andrea Whitcomb puts it, “the material world carries weight-aura, evidence, the passage of time.”
We hold items as being intrinsically valuable if they are unique–physically, aesthetically, topically. In a store (museum?) like Jim Reed’s, it’s hard to blink without coming across something of historical interest or importance. Yet is it all valuable enough to preserve for the future? Is there value beyond the individual object into the collective group of objects? Does this value change as new items come in or are sold? My favorite thing about going there is the sense of discovery, over and over and over, that I get to experience as I round corners, move mannequins aside or open old cabinets. My favorite museums are designed much in that same way-tactile. I love the sensory experience at Jim Reed’s. Turning on a Teddy Ruxpin and hearing the voice, feeling the slippery pages of an old encyclopedia set, smelling the mildew of old comic books.
My last trip there I bought an antique travel journal filled with news clippings, postcards and brochures of a teen girl’s trip through the American West in the 1930s. I love flipping through the pages, opening the brochures, watching her thought process of how she arranged everything. Tucked inside in an envelope that fell out after I bought it were letters and forms for the parents of trip-goers, and a separate flip book of photos from the 1990s of an old woman. From these physical items I’ve been able to learn all about this woman, Florence Gaskin. The scrapbook alone would have only given me her first name. It was the combination of physical items that gave me the whole story. Even in posting photos of these physical things I’m writing about seems to be going against what I’m saying-they cannot convey the value in a way that the physical object can.
Every time I’m in the Museum of Fond Memories, I wonder where he got this stuff. I assume house auctions and the like? Was this scrapbook just in a box of items he got out of a storage locker? Or did family members maybe scan it and get rid of the physical copy?
I ended up doing research on women’s travel during this time period, and used another woman’s travel scrapbook from the same time period, the 1930s, that was housed in UNC’s collections. It was only available to look at digitally. While I see the value in making a digital surrogate to protect the original, there is a value that is lost in the digitization.
Maude Bunn’s digital scrapbook: http://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv_images/bunn.pdf
I have since collected additional travel scrapbooks from periods throughout history. Some are crumbling at the lightest touch and leave flakes of paper in their path. A Vietnam Vet’s album from his wartime and later travels has lost all of its adhesive and thus some of its original order. In order to be able to work with them in the future and do research, I’ll likely have to digitize them to capture some part of the original that can’r remain.
Many people think that digital information needs to be held to a higher standard of authenticity and integrity. If a finding aid or the metadata about something says that it has X number of pages and was written in 1878, I generally trust that to be true. While notions of ownership are perhaps not a huge concern in this case, there is a chance it could be an issue if maybe the owner of a site with a brochure featured in the scrapbook might claim ownership, or a Gaskin relative. Concerns about reproduction aren’t as valid in this case though, as something like a scrapbook is inherently unique and understood to be one-of-a-kind.
I don’t think digital and analog version can be looked at comparatively because they offer archivists and the public different benefits. I think that, prioritizing of course, almost any item is worth of scanning and saving for the future, even if just as a digital surrogate. The effort now to scan something might later be the only record that that item ever existed. But will it be better or offer something the original item cannot? Beyond access and longevity, I’m not sure it can.