How will future generations commune with the dead?

Mike KnaakColumn, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. Joseph0 Comments

My wife spends many hours communing with the dead.

She’s found friends who lived in Civil War-era St. Cloud, then a city of about 2,100, while doing research for St. Cloud State University Archives and Stearns History Museum. These folks have come to life, not by time travel or supernatural powers, but through the pages of the city’s early newspapers.

While researching the history of the neighborhood that would later become the St. Cloud State University campus and downtown St. Cloud, she’s read about the people of that time in the pages of the St. Cloud Visiter, St. Cloud Democrat and St. Cloud Journal. These papers, founded by Jane Grey Swisshelm and then handed down to her nephew, William Bell Mitchell, chronicled St. Cloud’s early days.

The papers, now online at the Minnesota Historical Society, were digitized from microfilm of the printed pages and the files can be word-searched.

With more and more news found only online and print newspapers shrinking, I wonder where and how researchers 160 years from now will learn about today’s characters like the ones from the 1850s, ‘60s and ‘70s?

For example, some neighborhood issues never change. Take the case of Mr. Hayward, who kept “a large number of hogs” in his yard on Percy Street. The May 30, 1872, St. Cloud Journal reports that at the May 27 City Council meeting, Hayward’s neighbor, John Winslade, petitioned the Health Committee. The committee agreed that indeed the hogs were a nuisance and instructed the police chief to tell Hayward to “abate” the nuisance. The story did not mention if a barbecue ensued.

As today, calamities and accidents are duly reported, such as the odd demise of the Rev. Calhoun and the serious injury to his wife.

The couple were riding their surrey across a new bridge over the “great ravine” that joined Lake George to the Mississippi River. Approaching the bridge on what is now Third Avenue South, one of the carriage’s wheels got caught and the pressure on the horse’s collar caused the horse to bolt, dumping the couple 25 feet to the bottom of the ravine. Calhoun died three days later.

We have these stories and thousands more because we can easily search and read preserved printed pages.

But what about today’s digital world? Online news is posted, updated and soon lost in the millions of words shared each day. What will be the source a century or two from now for researchers, historians and genealogists?

Do we want to depend on Google instead of professional archivists and librarians who collect and curate reliable, trusted sources? Will Google even be a thing?

What about your own photos taken on your phone, shared on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram? Will your children and grandchildren be able to connect with their history when there are no more family albums with pages of faded photos?

As a journalist, I think about my own work. For the first 20 years of my professional career, all my photos were made on film, and with proper storage and archiving, the images will live forever. But what about the digital photos from the last 25 years? Those files live on various servers, DVDs and CDs. Will those survive and will today’s digital formats be accessible on the digital equipment of the future? If you think that’s not a problem, try finding gear to play a VHS tape.

My predecessor at the St. Cloud Times, Myron Hall, photographed St. Cloud’s events for 40 years. All his images are safely stored and archived at the Stearns History Museum where they are a daily resource for researchers.

Will today’s digital words and photos be as easy to visit, years from now? If you have a solution, you will be richly rewarded?

Author: Mike Knaak

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