The Bookless Library?

August 10th, 2011

Got a recent message from a fellow blogger (Dan Curtis) who forwarded an article from Time magazine that chilled my book-loving blood.  It was all about the bookless library. Yep, a library without books.  You heard me. For a book lover, this is not just nasty-sounding; it’s downright depressing.  There is Drexel University’s new Library Learning Terrace, a library with NO books at all, just computers and seats.  And there are half-way measures too:  the vaunted Stanford University trimmed all but 10,000 volumes from its engineering library. The article asks whether a library is really a library without books.  What an issue to debate: will it be the engineers and architects against old fogies like me who love the bound volume?  Two quotes stand out in this article:   One is from Michael Connelly, author of  The Fifth Witness.  He says the library is a “societal tent pole.”  Knock out the pole and the tent comes crashing down.  The other is from Norman Foster, the great architect: he is working on transforming the New York Public Library’s main branch, designing it specifically, he says, for “life beyond the book.”

Is there life beyond the book? Maybe.   But then … what sort of life?


Are YOU Entitled to Write a Memoir?

February 21st, 2011

According to Neil Genzlinger, probably not.

Genzlinger, writing in the New York Times in late January, describes most memoirs as having been written by “a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional …” Kind of a sweeping generalization, huh? In his article “The Problem with Memoirs” (NYT January 28, 2011), Genzlinger sets out some new “standards” for those he calls “would-be memoirists.” A theater, television, film, and book critic, Genzlinger says you shouldn’t consider writing a memoir unless you have better credentials than more famous memoirists, more to say that is meaningful, and a willingness to become the least important character in your memoir. (Say what?) Otherwise you are simply adding to the worthless pile of books written by those who apparently don’t realize “how commonplace their little wrinkle is.” I don’t advocate for meaningless writing, but Genzlinger seems to miss the fact that those commonplace little wrinkles are what make up the tapestry of human life. Granted, I may gobble up a memoir he thinks is unexceptional; he may inhale one that I think is soon to be consigned to the bargain books heap. But when someone sets out to convey a life, nine times out of ten he or she will have an impact on someone, somewhere. For any given memoir — or memoir’s close cousin, personal history – that “someone” is apt first to be the author’s family, friends, colleagues, and even … critics! It doesn’t need to end up on the NYT Bestseller list, and not being there will not make it more “commonplace.” I think Genzlinger needs to step back and figure out WHY people write memoirs and personal histories. They’re not always meant to be turned into Broadway plays or TV serials. More likely, they’re borne of the desire to connect with others, see where the common ground is, and perhaps offload some experiences that become more manageable — and more cautionary — in the sharing. No crime there. I say lighten up, dear critic! Climb down from your theater-reviewer pedestal and bear in mind that you may one day write your own memoir — I’d wager that you’ll have a few important things to say about folks in your own family.

Telling Stories, Hearing Stories

February 3rd, 2011

There’s a great line in Kathryn Stockett’s book, The Help, that jumped out at me the first time I read it and probably does the same for other people who pursue personal history.  It’s from the character Minnie, a brashly reluctant but ultimately willing informant for Miss Skeeter. (I advise a reading, if you haven’t yet.)  Minnie says: “Every time we meet, I complain. I moan. I get mad and throw a hot potato fit. But here’s the thing: I like telling my stories. It feels like I’m doing something about it. When I leave [the storytelling sessions], the concrete in my chest is loosened, melted down so I can breathe for a few days.”

A perfect capsule of words that tell why we do what we do in personal history. People WANT to tell their stories, want to loosen the concrete in their chests, even if they tell you their lives are too unimportant to share. The act of storytelling is a relief, an unburdening.  And the act of listening, receiving, and committing those stories to the page (or the tape or the film) means that our willing ears are our best tools.   The gathering and producing of these stories translates into honoring the storytellers.   It doesn’t get much better or simpler than that.

Stories are the tellers of us

December 16th, 2010

As a book lover and avid reader, I keep finding bits of prose or narrative that strike at the heart of personal history, memoir, and story-telling.  I’m reading along at a good clip and suddenly, I screech to a halt because there on the page is the truth about storytelling, cementing my belief that everyone has a story that needs airing and sharing.  Listen, for example, to Minny, an unforgettable character in Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help: “Every time we meet, I complain, I moan. I get mad and throw a hot potato fit. But here’s the thing: I like telling my stories … When I leave, the concrete in my chest has loosened, melted down so I can breathe for a few days.” Or to Little Bee in Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee: “I could not stop talking because now I had started my story, it wanted to be finished. We cannot choose where to start and stop.  Our stories are the tellers of us.”     The tellers of us. This is the heart and soul of personal history.  (December 16, 2010)

Data Rot

October 17th, 2010

Kind of an ugly term, data rot. But an even uglier concept, since it refers to what might happen to the precious things we’re putting on audiotape, CD, and DVD  — things we happily thought would last through the next millennium.  It’s not a new worry — just keeps coming up as we think about the future.  The problems that arise seem to be two, in particular:  .the changing machinery we use to read our data (our articles, photos, diaries, songs, films, journals); and the way we store our data  (with possible repercussions from temperature, humidity, light, and mold).  Think for a second about the old 8-track tape player; when was the last time you had an 8-track cartridge in your hands? The going rule these days is to make sure you move your data about every eight to ten years, transferring it from an older to a newer medium — like from VHS to DVD, or from audiotape to digital storage.   But … is there another way to preserve our history without having to do all this?

There is.  Place your memories, thoughts, photos, letters, hopes and dreams into one of the oldest media on the planet: a book!  This may be  old-fashioned.  But think of the history of books.  There is a small historic membership library in Salem, MA, for example, that houses a book published in 1498. You can still hold it, turn its pages, and read it (if you read Latin).  That, dear reader, is longevity!  Not that all books today will last. But with moderate care, books are still the longest lasting, least worrisome, and most satisfying (to me) medium into which to deposit a life history.   It’s still the first choice of many historians.  It’s still mine.  (October 18, 2010)

Remembering the Voices

September 2nd, 2010

I was reminded today of the reason why many of us engage in writing and recording personal histories.

Often it’s not just about the photos and stories and memories. It’s about the  sounds.  Recently a friend who lost a beloved parent not long ago wrote about this in a blog posting.  A native and lifelong resident of Massachusetts, he  decamped in June with his wife  for  work in Cambodia.  Perhaps it was a sense of the  enormous distance he had put between himself and his family, friends,  and familiar ground that did it, but he found himself craving the sound of his late mother’s voice (especially after phoning the U.S. and hearing it on an old voice mail greeting that the family has kept).  I was immediately mindful of my own yearning  for my mother’s voice, a craving still strong these 26 years after her death.  Hearing those voices — whether on tape or video — is powerful and goes straight to the heart of why few among us would say we don’t miss hearing them.   I often urge friends with living parents to grab a tape recorder and make sure not to wait for an “occasion” to turn it on and let it memorialize a loved one’s voice.  Today’s casual dinner table conversation can become tomorrow’s audio gift. (September 2, 2010)

Books as Props?

August 14th, 2010

You may have read it too:  that piece in the New York Times Magazine about using books as art, design props, planters, wallpapers, furniture, hiding places for other things.  The creative uses of books, wrote Rob Walker, that “do not involve engaging with words on a page.”  I thought of the stack of books by my bed — nothing creative there. And the little piles of books on stage sets and in houses being readied for sale. Walker refers to the “plenitude” that having books once represented (a library, after all, meant that not only did you have the bucks to buy but the time to read and enjoy all your books).  Then I think of the 200-year-old Salem Athenaeum (a small, historic membership library in Salem MA where I spend some time), and the  shoestring struggles it has to preserve, clean, and store beloved old book collections.  No plenitude there, although it strives to maintain its traditional place as a center of intellectual discovery and discourse.  But like many who still resist the charms of Kindle, who still consider an evening with a printed hardcover to be nirvana, and who would rather buy than borrow a book, I fear for the future of the medium.  I do seriously wonder about the value that future generations will place on printed books.   As a personal historian, my preference is to collect the memories and stories of others and bind them into books that can be passed down, dog-eared, foxed, faded, and frayed with love, and put on visible shelves to remind of the past.  This might be a small lament for what I think might eventually happen to printed books.   Perhaps I will just need to quietly keep doing my part to hold it off …  (August 14, 2010)

To the Lake …

August 2nd, 2010

Those of us who are devoting time to writing the histories of other people tend to forget that WE have recordable histories too — sometimes mundane, sometimes life-changing.  In writing to a colleague recently, I discovered that I have left unwritten my own childhood memories of a place that I know is by now so changed that it may no longer truly exist as it still does in my mind’s eye.  That alone is cause for grieving and then getting down to work immediately to  record the memory and be able to share it some day with my own children.  What triggered all this was reading  a tiny gem of an essay by E.B. White, about long-ago summers spent at “the lake.”  If you have not read it, drop everything now that it’s August, and find it at

As for your own “lake,”  do get to work on remembering it.  Soon.  It’s history worth keeping. (August 8, 2010)

What is the History You Keep?

July 26th, 2010

I tinkered with a number of topics for this, my first, blog post. I realized that when parsed, the name HistoryKeep brings up a fairly broad range of topics for me – from a love of history, to a keen interest in families, to the importance of keeping the details of lives fresh and present as one travels down the generations.  Why indeed should “history” refer only to those enormous, dramatic, world-changing, history book events and people? Why not keep the very personal history of your grandmother or my great uncle? Their perspective on life, and their experiences in it, inform our own, broadening it, and layering it.  Keeping their history means enriching our own lives. It seems a worthy endeavor.  That’s my mission.  (July 26, 2010)