“Close the door, light the light
We're stayin' home tonight
Far away from the bustle and the bright city lights
Let them all fade away, just leave us alone
And we'll live in a world of our own
We'll build a world of our own that no one else can share
All our sorrows we'll leave far behind us there
And I know you will find there'll be peace of mind
When we live in a world of our own.”
~ The Seekers, A World of Our Own
redeeming the time
Even in quarantine, there remains a need for safe refuge. And I am bearing in mind how there are woefully so many that are without places of residence, along with those without employment- each in a personal state of emergency. As for my continuum, it is through tentative and part-time work, although my thoughts and efforts are occupied on a full-time basis. Over these pandemic months, I’ve been able to accomplish about 75% of my work from my apartment. Albeit in a small living space, it’s been important to keep the “work work” away from my writing table. The two areas are at opposite corners of my apartment- even using two different laptop computers. Yet still, after the intensities of each day, there must be time and space to decompress. And the recollective and regrounding time lasts well into the night- long after the whole building has gone to sleep, and long after the drunken rowdies from the nearby bar’s outdoor operations have driven away (under the influence, no less). A few midnights ago, I pencilled this on a slip of paper: Even in quarantine, we seek refuge. Tranquility is not automatically part of our shut-in situations.
Every meaningful idea and project takes time and patience to develop. Central to the frustration of the present societal standstill is how the paces of time remain unrelenting. If hurry up and wait wasn’t bad enough, now we have something more like, it must but it can’t. Procedure and impatience never played well together. As children, our superiors reprimanded many of us for our impatience; as adults, many of us must chafe under the impatience of our superiors. Ponder that bit of irony. For this occasion, I’ll single out the professional archival work I’ve been accomplishing for the past twenty-two years through projects and public service. My mentor in graduate school used to repeat to us that we archivists should always be ready to educate colleagues around us about what our work entails- particularly librarians and administrators. Conserving, curating, interpreting, and managing original documents and artifacts is meticulous work. Doing the work methodically and correctly actually saves time, so that it will not have to be re-done later. The best stewardship means choosing not to cut corners, thinking of the benefits to be derived by future researchers. It takes time for any organic entity to bear fruit, and my two decades of experience have shown me how true this is. And the benefits are well worth the hard work- with this attentive labor requiring equal parts of patience, drive, steadfastness, and sensitivity to the subject matter.
In September 2009, I seized upon an unusual opportunity that very few archivists ever encounter. After years of taking on and completing a number of regional archival and preservation projects, I was alerted by a family member of the city’s newspaper founder that the company had been resold and the building housing all publishing operations was being gutted. Rushing downtown on my bicycle and descending to the old building’s sub-basement, I saw large piles and stacked boxes and bags of unorganized photographic negatives. Being both a career photographer as well as an archivist, I recognized the mounds of cellulose fragments as camera originals, and very likely a century of Greater Portland history in primary form. Through the buzz of removal service workers, I found the supervisor and asked him about the film. He found it curious that I wanted the discarded negatives, even after I told him about my livelihood. “You want this stuff? You gotta take it away this week, or it’s all going to a smelter,” he said, evidently referring to the silver content in the film. Speaking for my institution, and with the newspaper founder’s elderly granddaughter ready to support my rescue, I said “That’s not going to happen. I’ll take it all.” With the descendent’s extremely valuable support, the ownership and copyrights were legally cleared in favor of my institution and department, and all the film was moved out of the gutted sub-basement to a temporary offsite workspace for me to use as I began organizing this massive accession. And there began my odyssey of salvaging and rescuing what has turned out to be a priceless trove of more than a half-million unique photo images, taken between 1936 and 2004.
The process is surely worth its own series of essays, but for the moment it suffices to say that my life’s experiences served me well, marching into this project undaunted, using and defending the best practices of my field at every turn. It took three years to analyze, organize, and arrange all the pieces of film; during that first-pass I began creating the control document- known as a finding-aid. I examined over a million exposures. The second pass has been the highly critical descriptive treatment, which I merged with rehousing the images into non-acid alkaline enclosures. The process is painstaking, even at my level of dedication and devotion, and a great deal of research has been needed so that these images (which had been right on the precipice of a smelter!) could be brought out to audiences. I’ve been making productive use of these lockdown times by turning up my paces with this vast project, having fewer interruptions, focusing on the digitization of the most informative of these images. I’m carefully identifying all locations and coordinates, including building addresses, personal names, and intersections, remembering how researchers value pictures of streets and structures. The best of the images have intrinsic value, but that value is inestimably enhanced with through descriptive information providing context for the subjects.
When I rescued all the film discarded by the newspaper, I had a fairly good idea concerning the extent of the manual and intellectual strain that would have to follow. Despite knowing that physical space for processing and storage was going to be a problem, the urgency of securing the images was my greater concern. And it must be written here that as clearly as I recall the trash removers’ remarks about smelters, I also remember looking at those sorry mountains of scattered negatives and visualizing the completed work in my mind’s eye. I’m almost there. To be able to advance this project on a daily basis, on a shoestring and without proper facilities, I fronted my own money for some equipment, generated a grant, and recruited a team of volunteers to assist with the cataloguing and rehousing. And the unexpected joy in this stewardship is how the project began to take on a community aspect.
My hand-picked assisting volunteers have been senior citizens with a flair for history and memory. They remember many of the subjects in the photos, and our work together has been as satisfying as its been productive. We’ve had to use a work table in a public area, which has meant many passers-by have been watching the project take shape. People naturally ask questions, and the years of banter have forged a fellowship of appreciation for preserving local history. Everyone has stories, and I’ve been glad to listen. Such splendid intangibles cannot be properly bullet-listed in annual reports. Spirited friendships are for the archives in our hearts.
As the reckoning with quarantining and having to work from home set in, many of my coworkers found themselves either furloughed or scrambling to keep busy. Capitalizing on this productive solitude, I brought access to my thousands of image scans from the negatives, plus that priceless finding-aid, to my dining table so that I could begin building substantial digital archives. As with the initial processes, digitization and accurate interpretation is equally demanding. But these are necessary results, fruits of the labors of salvaging and preserving, and respecting the historicity of these treasures. Each uploaded image has been prefaced by my analysis and delicate scanning. More often than not, I confirm precise locations with maps and city directories- even when I know places from my own memory. Each image has stories to be respected.
Just as elements of serendipity have surfaced throughout this project, from the initial pass through the researching stages, this unique archive brought to life during pandemic times has accumulated a serendipitous audience. As the digital image collections have been growing in substance and coverage, viewership has been exponentially increasing. For the past several months, I’ve been hearing from hundreds of grateful browsers from places far away from Maine. Local residents, ex-pats, and admirers love the photos; and they tell me about their connections to the subjects. Most are people I’ve never seen before, and would not have been among my walk-in traffic. The comments are profoundly touching. This inadvertent and large new audience gives me a lot encouragement, and the sum total confirms to me that I’ve been doing the right things in the right ways- from the day I saw those acetate heaps in the gutted building. These images, these frozen moments in the lives of places and people, are indeed meaningful to many. The affections of the viewing public are equal to mine.
Among the many things I’ve been learning over the past 5 months is about the sustaining power of nostalgia. People everywhere are shut away from the lives they had before last spring. The months since have been filled with news that is at once grim, disappointing, and often tragic. Future hopes of cures, vaccinations, opportunities, socializing in person, and economic recoveries are too far away to predict. And in our natural inclination to dream, amidst closed doors we look to the past. More precisely, we look for comfort to what we like about the past. People tell me about the stores and dining places dear to their remembrances, and because I’ve so carefully catalogued these businesses by names and addresses, I post to the online archive the beloved department stores, small shops, diners, coffeehouses, and restaurants of Portland. I’ve been adding schools, streets, parks, and aerial views- all to the delight of many. It ceaselessly amazes me to see how a still image can ignite emotional and detailed stories from people far and wide. I digitized and posted a photo of a popular doughnut shop, and another of a delicatessen- and streams of comments followed, regaling me about what everyone loved to order, summer jobs, school days, and family traditions. When I post photos of stores, people tell me about what they bought at these places. It’s really wonderful. At the sight of a picture of a furniture store, a man told me that he had no pictures of his father’s store from decades ago. Well I found it and posted it, to his great joy. Into people’s frustrated quarantines, I’m providing some consolation through their memories, using archival imagery.
When an anticipated turn is undetectable, good news can come from reminders of the past visiting our present. Reflective personal writing and professional life both cause me to comprehend this; often the two spheres are juxtaposed. I can certainly understand my corresponding library patrons just as I could with years of walk-in seekers. Even the most serious researchers want to reminisce. And I accompany all of them, occasionally blending in names and locations from my own memories. As for the negatives- especially the later images, having been a journaling local and an active participant in this city, I’ve enriched descriptive metadata that would never have been gleaned from minimalist microfilms. As an archivist, the facts must be verifiable, and yet I've discovered the crossroads of archival processing and a kind of documentary narration. I'm able to provide descriptive context from my own memory, giving roots to the subjects when they are missing.
I was present when the photos were taken, took one of them myself, and personally knew the people in the photos. In addition, having found these photos, I am able to document the connections between the social resource and its founding church, to tell the most complete story possible. It's important to be the one that can AND will do this sort of thing.
As we do what we can do, and refrain from what we can’t do, having worlds of our own will be integral to survival. I do not consider nostalgic viewers of archives as different from me. It is as though thousands of individuals, each with a camera, are pointed at the same locations. Obviously, the differences are in our ages, backgrounds, personal interests, and how each of us look at life. While I’ve been assembling archives out of the film I rescued, diligently entering coordinates, names, and dates, I’ve also been reconstructing a world that is gone yet still remembered by many. The crisp and captioned photographs are sharpening countless memories. People are telling me they had forgotten how this store and that store were across the same street; they ask me “what’s at so-and-so’s address now?” The photos are sparks that rekindle vibrant recollections, well worth recording. Photography has unique ways of saying, “yes, this was true,” and “it was really there, and so were you.” In that sense, archival photographs are evidence, stopping time in the click of a one-hundredth-of-a-second’s lens shutter. It is a phenomenon that is part of my every day.
“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C. S. Lewis as the narrator in Letters to Malcolm. Amidst reading and hearing about the cheers of recalling things cherished, I am in a humbled wonder at the effects of the pictures. And it is very serious business, too, to be accurate and thorough. By presenting these archives, I am “giving back” the histories of those whose existing imagery was through what they try to remember. Anecdotes faded and blurred by the mists of time are sharpened. In an archivally metaphysical way, I’ve been rebuilding demolished places that are missed by many. During the voyage of tracking through seven decades of negatives, I saw how many churches this city had, which are long since torn down- and quietly as a subseries, I created a complete visual database of houses of worship. These are vanished places that are both historically very interesting and also very dear to many. Once again, it is a vital role to be the one who can and will do this sort of thing. Treating the joys as serious business has generated a heartening appreciation that exceeds anything I’ve experienced prior to this past April. There is more to do, and there are moments to be seized while possible- even in the unpredictable not-knowing. The worlds of our own may include grand stores and luncheonettes, Victorian railroad stations, houses and neighborhoods, repair shops, pastries, holidays, events, celebrities, relatives and friends, children’s street games, and big snow storms. We have these worlds, and the more they inspire and instruct, the more they are worth cultivating and conserving.