What do we keep that will tell our history to others?
Scrapbooks, schoolbooks, photos, mementos, letters, documents, awards. We like seeing our name in print (or, today, mentioned in an online post), we love sending photos to friends and family so they can see what we’ve seen. We hang on to heirlooms, many of which are handwritten or printed items. If they are in a language other than English, later generations of Americans might no longer be able to read them, though they know the items were important to a family member. Some of these items from family collections, newspapers, and local churches and community organizations make their way to the McLean County Museum of History archive.
Through the summer and fall, I’ve been an intern for the museum archive. My task has been to help in identifying and describing German-language materials, and to translate some of them into English, so they can be indexed correctly and be more accessible to users of the archive who don’t read German.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, our area had multiple German-language weekly newspapers. Some residents subscribed to German-language newspapers from other cities, such as Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis. One of my projects was translating copies of newspaper clippings from the scrapbook of Captain Christian Riebsame, who was a character in this year’s Evergreen Cemetery Walk. I was very excited to see an actor bringing to life this person who had saved his own written history in both German and English: clippings of his letters to the editor, poetry he liked, articles about the tavern he owned and the organizations he led such as the Turnverein and the Grand Army of the Republic, and obituaries of family members and friends. Actor John Bowen really played up Riebsame’s sense of humor and a touch of roguishness that balanced his public persona of respectability and leadership. I was heartbroken and misty-eyed at Bowen’s description of the devastating loss Riebsame and his wife suffered with the suicide of their eldest son, Carl.
In addition to keeping the stories of an individual or a family, some archive items give insight into what a culture finds important about itself. Another item I worked with was a handwritten, hand-bound fragment of a book. The pages were mostly covered in poetry and morality fables by famous German writers, which students in a small town in Bavaria had copied out as their writing exercises between 1813 and 1819. There was a clear intention with the choice of these pieces to inculcate young citizens with good moral judgment, perseverance, and an appreciation of German literature in light of the growing sense of German nationalism after the Napoleonic Wars.
The written materials we hang onto (and even the digital items like photos, websites, Facebook posts and blog entries) in all the languages used in our county today are windows onto what our community is like. If these items survive into the future, they help keep the memories of the important issues of our day, our selves, our community organizations, our traditions and our loved ones.