Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Help save our past!

Are you interested in that “other” perspective on America’s development that can be found in documentation handed down to us by our country’s earlier immigrants? This is commendable! Are you one of those whose New Year’s resolution is to clean out your basement or your office, to get rid of what you are not using? This is commendable, too! Did you answer “yes” to both questions? You may be contradicting yourself.

We attempt to preserve important records that illuminate the past. But what is important—and how can we tell the seed (or the wheat) from the chaff? How can we “make new friends, but keep the old,” when there is limited room in our lives and on our shelves? How can we identify these things, when so many records were even written in a variety of foreign languages?

Recent years have seen the publication of two incomplete German-American texts: Essellen’s Babylon and Lotta L. Leser’s short story “Wie Peter Meffert ‘nein’ sagen lernte.” Three of thirty-three installments of the former (which German scholars had long feared totally lost) could not be found, and half of the latter has also vanished (although the story won first prize in 1908 in a literary competition).

Documents of the government, churches, and social organizations of many communities—especially those not written in English—have found their way to the landfill. Even personal records such as letters and diaries, which tell stories inaccessible in other forms, have been relegated to the dump by descendants who can do nothing with them. We shudder to think....

How can we go about doing a better job of rescuing the past? We face a dilemma: before long it will be too late.

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