Voyages of discovery

Of late, I’ve been spending quite some time thinking about longitudinal studies; a number of you have engaged with me with encouraging feedback after my most recent post on this, on the impact of change and the time it takes to assess that impact. There are many reasons for this, but there’s a principal one. Polarised debate, often on ideological grounds, seems to have become more common in the recent past. It’s something I wrote about a number of times recently:  in Thinking About 2015 two years ago, in Routing Around Obstacles in April last year, in and in Going To The Match at the end of last year.

When debate is just ideology versus ideology, and the facts don’t matter, we live our lives in a house divided against itself.  [Personally, I think that this particular speech of Lincoln’s, while not as well-known as the Gettysburg Address, deserves more airtime].

I think it was James Surowiecki, writing in the New Yorker, who wrote about Brexiteers defending their position on ideological grounds (to do with sovereignty of border and law), largely ignoring economic arguments, and then strangely expecting the rest of Europe to negotiate solely on economic grounds rather than ideological ones. The paraphrase is mine, not his, apologies for any unintended misinterpretation.

Just this morning, I was reading about the drought affecting Haute-Savoie. Some key phrases:

  • Experts said that last month was the driest December in Haute-Savoie for 135 years, with just 0.2mm of rain falling in Annecy.
  • And, last week, a number of resorts recorded their 50th day without natural snowfall.
  • Serge Taboulot, head meteorologist for the northern Alps at Météo France, said: “This is an unprecedented drought. We have data from the 19th century in Annecy, and we have never seen such a situation before.”
  • On some slopes the snow cover was the worst for 20 years, he added.
  • Ninety per cent of French mountains were said to be affected after below-average snowfall since the summer.

 

Hmmm. Doesn’t look much like a Chinese conspiracy to me. But then even that is not a fair statement to make, I show a bias. Unless we start looking at the data, everything that is debated will be seen as a conspiracy by one ideology or another.

As I wrote yesterday, one way of resolving this tension is to have good data. Now that’s a fine and dandy thing to say going forward, on a “day zero” basis. The day we announce the start of the two-year clock for Brexit qualifies as a day zero. So will the actual exit. The day Trump was elected qualifies as a day zero. So will the day he is inaugurated.

Problems where we can start collecting data sensibly are tractable, even though we should expect considerable lobbying by those who would prefer that society cannot judge them even in hindsight.

What I’m currently intrigued by is the role of the archivist. Sometimes the archivist is an unintended one. For example, I’ve been seeing reports for well over a decade that ships’ logs from the 18th and 19th centuries have reliable and consistent data to help us understand aspects of climate change.

Sometimes the archivist is an intended one, carrying out the duties of an under appreciated profession. I’ve been able to find an application for a replacement passport made by my grandfather in the UK, and until then I didn’t even know he’d been to the UK decades before I was born. I’ve found records for erstwhile relatives making their first passage to India in the 1950s. All this because we are able to get access to historical information: birth and death registers, citizenship records, journey-related information, causes of death, migration patterns, court papers, telephone directories, myriad documents that were considered public records that were carefully archived and later made public.

Sometimes the archivist is accidental-on-purpose, carefully preserving records that were originally protected against public cynosure, then released after some or other oddly-determined cooling-off period.

Sometimes what is archived for one reason is made available for another; I hope to see the open data movement start catalysing such events in the next five years or so, as enlightened holders of valuable data sets make that data available to all and sundry after assessing that the public good is not counteracted by private harm.

And sometimes the archivist is an amateur. People like you and me. Particularly people who are getting on a bit. Our stories, shared while we can still remember and still articulate what we remember. What we remember about how we lived when we were young, what we learnt at our forebears’ knees, what stories they shared with us.

Making sense out of our collective stories used to be intractable. Technological advances suggest that this problem is getting more and more solvable.

It goes beyond our stories, we all have artefacts to share. eBay and Etsy are not the only games in town for where old artefacts go to die. Just like we learnt to collect and recycle our rubbish, we will learn to collect and archive our past. There is a Silent Spring waiting to be written about this. Maybe someone who reads this will go do it.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool collector, and over the years I’ve amassed quite deep collections of a very small number of things in very narrow topics. The East India Company and the Raj. Detective fiction since Poe and Wilkie Collins. Anything and everything to do with Don Quixote. Anything and everything to do with PG Wodehouse. The autographs of 20th century scientists I revere. Analogue versions of modern digital equipment. Cricket bats signed by batsmen I revere, and at least one bat signed by bowlers I revere.

Collecting is in itself not archiving, not unless you know what’s there, you can find it, you know and can attest to its provenance, and you have taken steps to take care of it. Which also means understanding if, when and how to cull the collection.

A good library is like a good garden; weeding is essential.

Let me take a walk into the wild here. And talk about how I discovered music.

We used to have an old gramophone at home. [Not the one with the crank handle and the big horn and the steel needles in a small box: I have a few of those now]. What we had was something very late-fifties/early sixties. A Garrard turntable, with a big central spindle, in the middle of what looked like a very large chest-like cabinet, opening from the top. Two speakers, one on either side, with the speaker cloth showing through the tracery of carved wood that decorated the front of the cabinet. A valve amplifier you couldn’t see in daylight, even though you smelt it warming up; you could, however, see it when it wasn’t daylight. In those days all valves were red at night.

Along with that gramophone were some albums. A whole bunch of “78s”, lacquer records from the 20s to the 50s. Another bunch of “10-inchers”, 33RPM albums that were somehow stunted in their growth. A large bunch of traditional 12″ classical albums. A smaller bunch of LPs with “modern” music. An even smaller handful of 45s. And that was it.

The 78s included some classical, some jazz and some more popular and folksy. I can only remember being entranced by a handful, Hernando’s Hideaway and Tom Dooley come quickly to mind.

The 10-inchers included a wonderful Perry Como (with Don’t Get The Stars Get In Your Eyes), a couple of Glenn Millers, Danny Kaye doing I’m Late, even a saucyish Ruth Wallis singing Down In The Indies amongst other songs.

The classical music 12-inchers covered most of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, with bits and bobs of Mozart and Rimsky-Korsakov. There were a decent bunch of jazz albums, quite a few Ella Fitzgerald and a similar number of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton, that kind of thing. And then there were a few oddball LPs as well. Pat Boone with Bernardine, Love Letters in The Sand, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, Don’t Forbid Me, April Love, Chains Of Love, Anastasia, Why Baby Why and so on. Edmondo Ros and Bongos from the South. Burl Ives at Carnegie Hall. My Fair Lady. South Pacific. The Pajama Game.

And a tiny handful of 45s. Summer Wine. Strangers in the Night. These Boots Were Made for Walking.

I can remember a couple of Hindi music albums as well. Sangam was one of them.

That was my day zero for music.

From that time on, I can remember precisely when someone I listened to entered my life. The day an uncle dropped in Peter Paul and Mary’s In the Wind, along with Brubeck’s Time Out. The day I went to the local record shop, Sonorous, and my father bought me A Hard Day’s Night.

From my music listening perspective, that was that for the period 1957-1968. We moved house in 1969, and things changed. The radio became more of an introducer of music. My cousin Jayashree became an arbiter of taste. Her husband, Gyan, sadly no longer with us, became a key influence on what I listened to. More of all this later.

Why am I bothering to share this? Only to make a point.

What you remember has value. Put it down somewhere. Be diligent about it. Particularly when it comes to how you lived, what relationship meant to you. What trust meant to you. What community meant to you. What schooldays were like, what school friends were like. What your childhood illnesses and medications were. What passed for everyday food and what passed for special treats. How you kept yourself occupied. What study was like, what play was like. How you kept yourself amused. Where and how you travelled. Whom you spent time with. What you read, what you watched, what you listened to.

What the weather was like. How much things cost. What skills you learnt and when.

What mattered to you. Why.

What you remember has value.

What we remember has value.

But we have to learn some basic skills in archiving in order to make what we remember useful for generations to come.

This is not meant to be a narcissistic post. If it’s come across like that, I have screwed up. Big time. My intent in sharing this is only to suggest that alongside the professional archivist and the accidental archivist, we all need to become amateur archivists. That is how we are going to build pictures of the past in order to understand the impact of things that were decided a few decades ago, and help understand things that are being decided and things that will be decided.

 

 

 

 

 

Let me know what you think