"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.