Kansas Memory: Preserving Our Past with Technology of Today
When I was a little girl, one of my favorite winter quiet-time activities was looking through our family collection of old photographs: stark black and whites of my grandparents standing in front of a house I barely recognized as the one I would come to know several remodeling jobs later; a hand-tinted photo of my father as a little boy, wearing denim overalls and posing in an alfalfa field; faded Kodak color pictures of my sister and me in our Easter dresses, squinting into the sun.
I knew right where to find all those treasures of our family’s history: piled in the bottom right drawer of a desk in the corner of our living room.
Later, as I grew older, and my grandparents passed away, our photo collection grew and expanded into more desk drawers. Once I even discovered two never-before-seen old shoeboxes on a top shelf of our bedroom closet. Those boxes were filled with black and white pictures of women with tight-corseted dresses, men with white hair and handlebar mustaches, and unsmiling children wearing short pants and vests.
“One of these days I’ll go through them and write names down for you,” my mother said.
She never got around to it, and while I have some of those old photos, framed today, most are now long-gone—many pictures of relatives I never knew and whose names I will never learn.
Obviously, my mother was not a scrapbooker, but there were those who were, even in those days. I know that because I’ve run across fine old family albums in antique shops, those albums no longer the property of the people whose photos are inside, but are instead lost and gathering dust on the bottom shelf in Booth #97, waiting for someone, anyone, to drop in and purchase someone else’s family history.
What are the chances of those pieces of history finding an appreciative home, much less finding their way to a place where others can learn from them, can stare into the eyes of their ancestors and find that connection we’ve lost as modern families who have moved farther and farther away from each other?
Now there is a suitable home for such historical relics, however, and that home does not involve taking photos away from their original owners.
The Kansas State Historical Society has created an Internet site called Kansas Memory so that people can share historical resources, including photographs, diaries, letters, and oral histories. The site, a division of the Kansas State Historical Society, needs only to borrow these items long enough to scan them and turn that scan into digital images fit for the Internet.
Recently, the Gray County Historical Society funded a Kansas Memory “scanning party” by offering to pay room and board for staff members of the Historical Society to travel to Western Kansas for a couple of days to copy individuals’ photo collections at the Cimarron City Library.
The operation took only a few minutes and resulted in a variety of additions to Kansas Memory, including the 10,000th photo to be placed in the collection (View Item #10,000 on the Kansas Memory home page, www.kansasmemory.org). As a consequence of that operation, Gray County now has as many photos on file available for access as other, much more populated counties in the state.
Some photographs were even scanned through the glass of their frames. The operation doesn’t take much time, and original copies are catalogued and returned to their owners. But in the process of sharing, family histories are preserved, and people all over the world are given access to historical information that might otherwise have been lost forever.
Doris Phelps, retired Cimarron City Librarian, was one of the first to show up for the scanning party.
“I took 31 photos,” Phelps said. “There were photos of the Soule Canal in Ingalls, a picture of the house south of Cimarron where I grew up, and the old Phelps house in Cimarron with barns around it, sheets hanging on a clothesline, and the old telephone office on the corner northwest from the house. We even had an old V-mail letter from World War II.”
Phelps stresses that the entire process was surprisingly easy.
“It didn’t take long at all, really,” she said. “And the people there were very organized and professional. I stayed and waited and answered questions about who was in each picture, while one person typed and another scanned the photos. It all felt very organized and safe for my documents.”
Another Cimarron resident who gathered boxes of photos to have scanned was Sara McFarland.
“I took a lot of photos,” McFarland said. “My uncle was Frank Hungate, a photographer here during the early part of the Twentieth Century. We had boxes of photos he had taken: family, school, churches, towns. We had photos not just of Cimarron, but also of Ensign, Montezuma, and Ingalls. There was even a box labeled ‘Gray County, Unidentified’. I don’t even know where those came from.”
McFarland’s mother had tried to organize those photos many years ago, putting them into separate, labeled folders.
“I know she was interested in preserving those photos and in getting people to make copies of their old photos for the Historical Society,” McFarland said.
McFarland has high hopes for the future of those photos she took to the Kansas Memory scanning party.
“It’s just a wonderful treasure trove of knowledge,” she said. “Most small towns and small counties don’t have real history books. Now, if someone has time and wants to write such a book, there’s information available and easy to access.”
In addition to providing information for others, McFarland stresses that loaning old photos and other documents to be scanned and placed on the Internet might also prove beneficial to the people who own those documents.
“Just think,” she said, “if you’ve got your old photos in the basement and they were damaged or destroyed in a flood or another disaster, then you could get copies of your documents back because they would be preserved by Kansas Memory.”
The existence of Kansas Memory has started me wondering: Does the state of Oklahoma, where I grew up, offer its version of Kansas Memory? It’s too late now for me to preserve most of my family photos, and I deeply regret that.
However, it’s not too late for Kansas residents to spend a bit of quiet time on cold winter days this year, exploring the history of communities and families others have shared at www.kansasmemory.org. And just maybe, as they browse, those keepers of family memorabilia will decide to participate in this amazing project by sharing their own family documents.