Drab Is a Color | Newberry

Drab Is a Color

So I have been much involved with family mementos during this viral lockdown. Not mine—you won’t catch me trying to bring order into my own files—but those of other people.

On the one hand, I have been working my way through family papers on Newberry Transcribe. These are letters, diaries, and such from collections which have been sent to the Newberry. Handwritten documents can be difficult, so this is an online effort to get the texts of these documents transcribed to allow better access to researchers, online textual indexing, and so forth. This can never replace the original document for research, of course—in the end it will be up to the individual reader whether the author wrote “Birthday card from Mary” or “Birthday card from Marcy.”

At the same time, I have been disposing of a lot of family photos which have turned up at the Book Fair over the years. Many of these were accidental, tucked into the back of a book for safekeeping in 1924, some were intentional. (One of our volunteers, when he moved, simply sorted out all unlabeled photographs that no one could identify, and sent them to us. If his family didn’t know the faces, they weren’t family any more.) One or two collections, I suspect, were the work of artists who simply roamed from garage sale to garage sale, buying interesting pictures for their reference files.

Sales have been reasonably brisk, prompting several people to ask, “How come, Uncle Blogsy? If the family members didn’t care, why does anybody else? Why not just throw them away?”

I get the same with some of the documents in Newberry Transcribe. We don’t all witness Presidential addresses every week, nor do we walk into crime scenes. A LOT of these diaries run to: “Monday. Warmer. Tuesday. Cooler, Cloudy, no rain” for page after page. “Why would anybody EVER want to read that, Uncle Blogsy? Wouldn’t the Newberry be better off if it just threw that stuff away? There’d be room for good stuff.”

You aren’t here to stop me, so I will mention again the visitor who saw a pristine copy of a book from the 1880s on trout fishing in upstate New York. “No one’s ever going to read that,” he said. “Why do you keep it?”

The curator told him, gently, “We prefer not to censor culture.”

The thing is that we cannot guess what generations yet to come is going to want to research. These boring portraits of ladies dressed up for the photographer may be a goldmine one day for art historians researching ears. (Kenneth Clark once noted that if an alien race judged us only by the paintings we left behind, it would conclude that females of our species had a tendency to be earless in alternating generations. See, in some eras, hairstyles covered the ears and then new fashions would reveal the ears, only to be followed by…you see his point.)

I sold one photo of an absolutely ordinary-looking young man in a suit. Even the suit was not especially interesting, and his collar and necktie, allowing for a hundred years of fashion shifts, were especially ordinary.

But I glanced at the bottom of the picture and my mouth popped open. he photographer had cropped most of his feet from the photo, but just about four inches of his right boot still showed. And the boot of this ordinary young man was ornamented with a metallic floral pattern gaudy enough to suit a champion rodeo rider or top 40 country western singer. Was this what any Lutheran businessman in Sweden would have been wearing in 1893? (Date and religious persuasion are guesses of mine, but the photo WAS taken in Stockholm.)

Similarly, those letters and diaries from Middle of Nowhere, Nebraska in 1893 are data as well. To someone who is doing research on the drought of 1897 or the Financial Panic of 1893, the humdrum notes tell what the average citizen thought of it all. One particularly boring young man writes of how his state was nearly split by political rancor in the capitol (the legislators who had been voted out of office in November were refusing to give up their seats to the newly elected statesmen, and it was very dodgy for several days.) This young man makes note of this, but mentions what he knows he knows from what people were saying on the street. The threat of violence never really impinged on his daily routine. And THAT is something a researcher would find interesting.

This is not to say the Newberry wants all those letters full of advice that your Aunt Booney sent you in the 1990s, nor that I want you to rush to your closet and get me all the photos you don’t remember taking. Hold off a hundred years and call us back. Retro-boring is all we have room for.