We need the tools of history to claim our past and shape our future

History shapes us. We are who we are and we live as we do because of our history, because of those who have gone before us.

While designations like February as Black History Month may seem contrived, they are worthwhile. A designated month can force us to look at important history that may have been overlooked. “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” wrote the founder of the precursor to Black History Month, journalist and historian Carter Goodwin Woodson.

The same is true of March as Women’s History Month. Gerder Lerner, a professor who taught America’s first women’s history course and was instrumental in setting up the precursor to women’s History Month, said, “Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin ‘helping’ them. Such a world does not exist — never has.”

Of course, the ideal would be to pay attention to the history of African Americans or women every month of the year. Many of us had our bedrock beliefs as citizens, the foundation of who we are as people, laid in public schools where history for decades was taught from textbooks.

Designations of special days, weeks, or months became essential as the melting-pot idea of America gave way to more of a tossed salad approach where separate groups were recognized for their contribution to the whole.

With the dawning of the digital age, the way we know our history is at the fingertips of individuals. Even in public-school classrooms, many teachers have set aside the textbooks that too often delineated a single view of historic events.  Now students, frequently under the tutelage of their teachers and sometimes on their own, are researching a wide variety of online documents from many sources.

And individuals are tracing family histories back though generations using online genealogical sites. The laborious and expensive trips to distant city halls or other repositories of documents, or the endless wait for mailed correspondence has been cut short as deep roots can be extrapolated more easily and people from around the globe with shared histories can help each other explore their common past — all online.

But all of this digital globetrotting does not make local history any less important. In fact, it can take on heightened importance as the regional can reach far and wide. Take a look at our page-one story by Jo E. Prout on work being done now at the Voorheesville Public Library for a model we hope others will follow.

Several people with diverse talents are working together in Voorheesville to make important documents and artifacts of local history accessible worldwide by entering them in a digitized state catalog system.

Three individuals — each with different perspectives and expertise — are making this project a reality. First is James Corsaro, a retired state archivist with the expertise not just to categorize local records but also to get them catalogued into the state system.

Second is the longtime library director, Gail Alter Sacco, who understands that libraries can be a hub for local history and genealogical research. She points out that Vorheesville’s library allows users access to the “quite pricey” Ancestry.com at no charge. Also, the library has made oral recordings of local history available to the public. She persuaded her own mother to record an oral history — so her great-grandchildren could one day hear her voice — and encourages others to do the same.

Last, but certainly not least, is village historian Dennis Sullivan. He has written for The Enterprise in different capacities over the years and currently has a column called “Field notes.” Sullivan painstakingly — he calls it a labor of love — went through more than a century’s worth of microfilmed papers to glean nuggets about the lives and times of Voorheesville, since 1884, to make them part of the library’s historical record.

Most importantly, because Voorheesville had a mayor, Ed Clark, and trustee, Susan Rockmore, who understood the value of history, Sullivan, as village historian, had the funds to hire a photographer to picture every building in Voorheesville and to purchase physical artifacts from Voorheesville’s past.

The collection now at the library, for example, includes cigar boxes from the Hallenbeck cigar factory that once stood on the village’s Main Street and cider bottles from the defunct Mott’s juice factory. We know from writing Enterprise obituaries about how these businesses affected people’s lives. Sometimes, they provided a livelihood; sometimes they were the reason a couple met, fell in love, and married.

The richness of history — the depth, the texture, the color — comes from the details.  Holding a physical object in our hands sometimes engenders a connection that speaks volumes.

Written words, mind you, are still important. But in village halls, town halls, and school districts across the land, as records are being digitized, cartons of physical materials are being discarded. And that’s a shame because sometimes the very way a record is kept is informative.

Sullivan told our reporter, for example, about a one-of-a-kind book detailing farm life on Font Grove Road in the early 20th Century. Only three copies were originally made and the one being preserved at the Voorheesville library was done with carbons, evident from the bluish type and the pasted-in photos. Another treasure is a farmer’s diary, handwritten in pencil, letting us see, here in the 21st Century, what the social life of New Scotland was like in the 1800s.

Corsaro has transcribed that manuscript — Sullivan has called Corsaro the Babe Ruth of manuscripts — and it will be indexed and catalogued with the other records. The library will preserve those records in its air-conditioned environment so that people searching online can discover the village’s treasures and come to see for themselves.

That’s a home run for the village and for history, too.

For, if we are to construct a narrative, either as individuals or a society, to define who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going, we need the artifacts, the pieces of history preserved and accessible.

We need the tools to interpret our own experiences — whether we are male or female; whether we are African American, Italian American, Polish American, Irish American, or Native American; whether we come from wealth or poverty — to claim our past and shape our future.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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