Discovering the Raw Materials of Personal History for an Interactive Documentary

In last week’s posts, my colleague Amy Lauters and I both wrote about starting an interactive documentary prototype project based on a memory box she had received during her research on farmers’ wives. Her post provided more of the context, while my post provided an overview of the project’s procedures.

This week and last week brought us to the next step: Discovery. In other words, going through the box’s contents to see what is there and perhaps developing initial ideas about the project. I perused the box as a technologist, thinking about how the contents might intersect with technologies toward developing the stories. You can read more about Amy’s historian-trained cultural perspective in her post.

In looking through the box, I took an inventory of the contents. Among the items were a letter, a newspaper article, a family geneaology, a family history (with recipes), a church anniversary brochure, two pictures, a Memorial Day photobook (from 1899), four checking registers, and eight composition books.

The accompanying letter framed the box’s contents in an almost contradictory way. On the one hand, the writer called them “nothing special,” which is interesting because someone still took the time to collect them, save them, and ship them. On the other hand, the writer qualified the contents’ value with “yet they show the hard work” done by their grandmother into her 50s and beyond.

From there, the box’s contents split into two general categories: context and personal voices. The history, geneaology, and other materials provide the contexts.

Two personal voices appear within the other materials. One is a possible relative who left comments on the documents. In the geneaology, for example, the writer notes their grandmother and updates others’ deaths. In the church history, they identified all the family baptisms. In the newspaper article, they wrote, “This is an article about our farm.” There is a chance that more than one person added these notes, but there is no way to confirm.

The other voice is Elsie, the hard-working grandmother who kept journals from the mid-1950s into the late 1970s. She began keeping the journals within check registers and then later expanded to spiral-bound notebooks.

Elsie’s journal style is more of a chronological log than a reflection process. She penned 1-2 sentences about what she did or what what happened each day. She wrote about going to church — or not, as sometimes happened. She noted doing the laundry, ironing, and sewing. There were eye and hair appointments. People visited and people died, though not at the same time.

For example, for one entry Elsie wrote, “Cleaned kitchen and got things ready for Xmas.” Also: “Send out tax bills.” And: “Big washing. Beautiful day. Nice sunshine.” And: “Did not wash, wrote some letters and fixed some skirts for Carol.” One more: “Planted potatoes and worked outside.”

Several themes did emerge from her entries, including weather (of course), housework, visits, deaths, church, and health, to name a few.

The journal entries comprise the bulk of the materials in the box. They cover almost 20 years of near-daily notations. I see them as the core experience, the main content, for users in the interactive documentary prototype.

The entries could be arranged three ways. The first is chronologically, which might be a good approach for those who prefer to read. The second is thematically, for those who prefer to discover different entries around a common idea. A third is just random, in that the experience delivers a random entry on request.

But should Elsie’s original entries be part of that experience? Elsie’s handwriting is in a style that I found difficult to read, and it seems that that style could be too much to ask for an online reader to work through. The text might need conversion into digital formatting and then perhaps stylization via custom fonts.

Outside the entries, I thought the spiral notebooks might inspire an overall design. The notebooks included yellow, red, green, blue and teal colors. Some were narrow ruled, and some were wide ruled. The price increased from 25 cents to 59 cents. Brands changed, too: Belson, Eagle, Dillon, Westab, Schmidtman Company, and Riverside. Three came from Wisconsin cities: Green Bay, Appleton, and Manitowoc.

The entries and other box contents suggest possible features for the interactive documentary. One might be a map showing the area where Elsie lived. Another might be bios of key people appearing throughout the entries and their relationships to Elsie. A third might be a timeline of Elsie’s life events, with a fourth a timeline of regional, national, and international cultural events for context. The period of Elsie’s entries cover the moon landing, the Vietnam war, JFK’s assassination, the civil rights movements, and Nixon’s resignation, to name a few.

One key question followed me throughout perusing the box, taking notes, and even writing this entry: Should we mention Elsie by her full name, or should she remain anonymous? She passed away in the early 1980s at the age of almost 90. While that was almost 40 years ago, her descendants live on.

The discovery stage was fun, but the next stage, cataloging, might bring a lot of work. More on that as we get to it.

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