Archiving the Future Past

A record with meaning.

February 15, 2016

I was never meant to be a secretary. The slippery concept, which encompasses roles from senior diplomats to junior clerks, inevitably involves the management of meeting minutes. As an historian, notes hold freighted meaning. They offer passport to the past. I depend upon them to facilitate time travel. Because I showed up at a meeting six years ago with an iPad at the ready, I found myself named secretary of the regional chapter of a national organization. To my horror, I am now the person filing minutes. The responsibility of creating an archival record terrifies me. What if my notes are misleading? What if I mischaracterize a speaker’s meaning?  Some future historian might take away all the wrong messages.  

Last October at a Halloween party, I inspired scoffing laughter when I shared that I have kept every holiday letter I have ever received. What better way for some future historian to grapple with turn of the 21st century upper middle class mores, I argued, than to review the photos and missives we select as the best representations of ourselves? One unnerved neighbor proclaimed that should anyone wish to remember their past holiday cards, they should head to my house.    

Some years ago, when a close friend learned of my habit for “archiving” holiday cards as well as birthday cards and all other paper correspondence, she said she would have to be more careful about anything she sent me. That, of course, would defeat my purpose. I can’t part with the artifacts of my personal future past, because they capture the nature of my lived experience so well.  

This is NOT to imply that cards aren’t consciously constructed. However, they do embody what each of us envisions as our best. For some, aesthetics dominate. Perfectly coiffed kiddies smile in matched apparel.  For others, far flung travels win out over images of domestic bliss. Indeed, they change over time.  When our kids were small, we paid for family portraits.  Now that they are older, I fill cards with travel snaps. The shift reflects an evolution of our schedules. Finding time for a portrait during the rush daily life with two careers and two teenagers seems more difficult than assembling photos from the time we set aside for travel during vacations.

My parents and I muse over how much longer the holiday card will exist. Their generation still exchanges long annual newsletters. My generation shifted to photocards with the proliferation of online photo sites.  For those of us who “see” one another daily on social networks, I suspect the physical card will disappear as an environmentally unfriendly relic, replaced by a Facebook status update.

This obsession emerges from my years spent in archives wishing someone had left me key to their existence.  What would Indian interpreter Conrad Weiser’s wife have put in her holiday greetings the years he ran off to the Ephrata Cloister?  What would Weiser’s daughter have written on her birthday note to her dad? I’ve searched in vain. My meeting notes paralyzed me, because I have spent countless hours pouring over treaty minutes wondering what elisions Weiser made due to lapsed memory, idiomatic muddles, or ill intent.  

Due to my dawdling, I am finishing this post on Valentine’s Day.  My English husband was quite confused by this holiday’s US traditions. In the UK, you don’t sign your valentines, they remain the relics of rebellion against arranged marriages.  Romeo, after all,  could not have signed his valentine to Juliet. Romance took place on the sly. Yesterday, the card shelves offered Valentines for children, grandchildren, and others for whom one’s love has no relationship to eros.

Another reason to save those cards and help some confused historian come to grips with brings meaning to our lives and loves.



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