11 January 2013

Thriller Thursday - The Titanic Myth

I was really happy when I received my Fall/Winter 2012 issue of The American Archivist and found this:

"Mythmaking and the Archival Record: The Titanic Disaster as Documented in the Archives of the Seaman's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey." by  Johnathan Thayer

Of course, the title alone would grab most people's attention and I immediately turned the pages to begin reading the article. What a remarkable job Mr. Thayer has in caring for the Seaman's Church Institute (SCI) Archives. Imagine having access to material that surrounded the romantic yet tragic Titanic story!  

As I continued to read he spoke eloquently about how it is Archivists that often control access to material with historical impact, and whether or not the material is processed to provide access to it, can determine how historical events are later viewed. In the abstract, Mr. Thayer alludes to this, "...of the role that archives and archivists play in the process of cultural myth making and in reclaiming historical experience."

I read on further; while the article is a bit lengthy it's chock full of remarkable information about the Titanic historic episode and specifically about the abysmal conditions under which many ship workers had to function at the time. In paraphrasing some of the more poignant reports from the article many of the White Star Line crew who survived the sinking of the Titanic, managing to stay alive in lifeboats or in the water, were denied compensation for the full voyage, denied money to wire home to let their families know they had survived, and were ordered by White Star Lines to remain on the ship Lapland while they were in New York (three days). Adding insult to injury, in some cases literally, White Star Lines made crew members work on their return voyage to London to pay for passage on the ship Lapland. Please, if you have a few minutes, do take the time to read the full article on the SCI Archives website.

And this brings me back to myth making. Mr Thayer states, "...the archival record provides primary insight into the historical event as it happened in real time, stripping away decades of subjective weight..." and "The role of the archivist in this process is to preserve and make accessible the materials that make the study of historical experience within a context that is original and primary. The closer one is to the primary record of the historical event, the thinner the layers of the myth." (my emphasis)

As a Genealogist, I'm constantly trying to bust myths. I don't just want to find the date that John Richards was born, I want to find a record of his coming into being, of his being alive and living, and to document his passing on. What's more I know there are genealogists and family historians out there that are holding primary material in their collections yet, either unknowingly or even sometimes knowingly, don't share it.

This article is a reminder to family historians and genealogists of every stripe to think about the family material you have and DO something with it. Do not allow it to languish in an attic or basement (remain unprocessed), especially if you have original letters or documents. Get that material in archival folders and boxes, label those folders and put them up on your blog or family history website. They're the primary record of historical events, the ones that make that myth layer thinner. Too often we have no way of knowing how many other researchers may be looking for the information our material contains.

If you don't know how to protect and preserve that material, ask! We're great question askers, us genealogists, so there's nothing wrong with asking about resources. Check with a local genealogical or historical society. And if money is an issue, don't let it be. If you have original letters more than 50 years old, let me know. I'll find resources for you to be able to get them in proper storage. Share the research you've done not just with the family you know, but with researchers at large (at the very least, get it to the Allen County Public Library - they'll duplicate and bind it for you).

It's not often I can reference a scholarly SAA article in my genealogy world. Much thanks to Johnathan Thayer for graciously allowing me to reference his article. 

Did you know about the historic events surrounding the Titanic's sinking? Does knowing some of this additional information change your perception of this historic event? Does knowing that an Archives had the material but wasn't able process it until much later cause you concern? I'd love to hear your answers to some of these questions.


  1. I love the idea of making the myth layer thinner. What a dismal way to treat the crew of the White Star line after this great tragedy. It sounds like the higher-ups put money over everything and were perhaps arrogant about it. I wonder if this attitude was imposed on the crew before the tragedy -- like, perhaps the crew tried to express reservations or warnings about the voyage or the coming disaster, and they were not heeded by those who ran the ship.

    Recovering the past is really a formidable job! I feel even more determined to get my family's documents, photos, and papers into an archive, and disseminate information about where they are archived on my blog and family website. I hadn't thought of this second component--advertising the archive location online--until I read your blog today. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for your comment Mariann. I did a *wee* bit of additional research on the SCI and what was happening on the docks at that time. Sadly, the working conditions truly were dismal.

    I think it's lovely that people want to make their 'keepsakes' available to their families. My larger goal is to get people to grasp how important their primary material is, not just for their family, but to our cultural heritage as a whole. We tend to distill things down; I want to open the floodgates.

  3. Thank you Laura for this reminder that we really do need to be more proactive with the original documents that we have in our care. I know that I am working on doing a much better job at getting them not only scanned but preserving them as best I can. Slowly but surely I am getting my act together over here - LOL!

    1. Liv, we do the best we can with what we have. I try to remind people that it does NOT have to be expensive to properly store material because I think that's often the concern people have but don't want to voice. That and time, or lack thereof...lol. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  4. Laura,
    I have a letter from my great uncle to my grandfather which was written while he was in the US Army fighting in World War I. I would like to know the best way to preserve it. I found it in between the pages of my great grandparents bible from 1880. Also, what would be the best way to preserve this bible? I have a number of other items like these and am just getting started.

    1. Diane, material is best stabilized by being stored in acid-free folders in acid-free boxes. I'd suggest making a digital copy of the letter and either blogging about it or sending it to the Allen County Public Library; they are looking specifically for original material that involves the military to add to their family history collection. The Bible can be stored in an archival box; however if it has a leather cover (most do) a layer of acid-free tissue around the book is suggested. If you like, I have a community on Google+ where we discuss all types of options for protecting and preserving material, and I'd love to have you join us. Let me know if you'd like an invitation to join, I made the group private to avoid spammers. :-) Glad you found something helpful here!!


Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my blog!