Monday, December 27, 2010

Erosion of Our Collective Historical Consciousness

In the Sunday edition of The Indianapolis Star (Dec. 26, 2010), at the bottom of page A1, reporter Will Higgins wrote about the imminent transfer of the Ernie Pyle historic site in Pyle's hometown (Dana, Indiana), from the Indiana Natural Resources Commission to a private group devoted to the preservation of Pyle's historical contributions. Dana is a tiny town in remote Western Indiana--a few miles further west, and it would be in Illinois. But it epitomizes the archetypical Hoosier agricultural community, with its historically important homegrown ethos of hardworking, honest citizens that made Indiana the heartland of American family values.

From Dana arose Indiana's most famous journalist, Ernie Pyle, whose writing resonates as profoundly today as it did during World War II. Take any of Pyle's wartime books, and you will learn volumes about the real people who fought against fascism and tyranny. Pyle's hometown is intensely proud of his historical significance, but there are fewer residents there to preserve this history than in years long past, when townsfolk who knew Pyle still lived. Nonetheless, an enthusiastic group of Dana citizens is undertaking the arduous task of raising private funds to preserve the Pyle historic site.

This is the modern theme in historical preservation. Governments are relinquishing their roles as the keepers of the public memory. History is poor political capital--most people don't seem to care about history and know pitifully little about it--and so politicians expend little, if any, efforts to finance its preservation. This has been especially true during the tough economic struggles the nation currently faces in its "Great Recession." It requires more backbone than most politicians could muster to commit public revenues to ensure that future generations will have important historic sites to visit and personally experience.

So government-directed historic sites such as the Ernie Pyle museum are left to private parties who must somehow finance their operation through charitable contributions. Raising money for history, like the arts, is like Sisyphus forever condemned to roll the rock uphill. People will unthinkingly drop $10 or $20 on the statistically improbable (impossible, for all intents and purposes) chance of winning the state lottery but would flatly refuse to contribute even a dollar to help preserve a historic artifact or locale. But citizens must do it, if it is to be done at all, because governments will shirk the duty.

Why should we care? What difference does history make? It's over and done with, so why bother preserving it? If you think that way, let me set fire right now to all of your family photographs, personal letters, or keepsakes. History is not something outside or apart from the people living it. History is us--our ancestors, you and me, and our descendants--and we must protect it if any of us is to learn and understand what our culture has been (and is becoming), as well as how our own life's experiences are integrated into the fabric of time. Each of our lives has had significance because we recognize our place in the historical texture of our hometowns and communities. Sites devoted to famous persons, such as Ernie Pyle, remind us that he was like us, an ordinary American, who grew up in a farmhouse similar to those that some of us live in today. That history reminds us who we have been, who we are, and who we will become. If that history is lost through neglect, then we are lost, and our lives become meaningless in the great cosmic scheme.

Of course, I have a professional stake in historical preservation. People call me the town historian of Mooresville, Indiana, a title which is only partially accurate at best, since I am neither a native nor an expert. I can name a half-dozen persons off the top of my head whose local (or county) historical knowledge far exceeds mine, the best of which is Wanda Potts, the true town historian (and one of my predecessors at Mooresville Public Library, the Indiana Room Librarian from 1966-2002). But my job (as the current keeper of the flame) is the preservation and retrieval of local historical and genealogical information, and so I appreciate daily the value history plays in the lives of my patrons. What a terrible shame if our little library's local history & genealogy collection (roughly 5000 books, periodicals, microforms, vertical files, and realia) vanished because politicians feared adverse taxpayer reaction to public expenditure to safeguard it. Now multiply that ten thousand-fold, and consider the consequences when more governmentally funded historic sites, libraries, and archives are closed or sold off to private collectors (or worse), or that must be maintained by generous, diligent, interested private citizens at their own (or private contributors') expense, or that are closed, forgotten, and left to decay.

Once that history has gone down the drain, it is lost. Period. Think about your family photographs and memorabilia I mentioned before. How would you feel if you lost them in a flood (as I did) or a fire (as my grandmother did) or due to taxpayer apathy (as the citizens of Indiana and elsewhere are experiencing with closure of public historic sites)? Our collective history is simply bigger piles of personal family snapshots, letters, documents, and artifacts. I don't want to lose any of them. I hope you don't, either, and will see the value in publicly subsidizing their protection.

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