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OPINION | NATE COULTER: Tell your story

Preserve your ‘private library’ by NATE COULTER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | January 21, 2022 at 2:59 a.m.


One of my favorite songs in the hit musical "Hamilton" comes near the end when Eliza Hamilton is lamenting that her husband, unlike the other founders of the republic, did not live long enough to tell his own story.

"Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?" reminds us that we all have stories we want to tell about our lives. Those among us who are blessed with longevity enhance the legacy we leave our family and friends by telling more of our own stories. As the late Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

In "The Library Book," a bestseller about a devastating 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library, Susan Orlean points to a figurative library we all possess within. She writes that, in Senegal, when someone dies people will say his or her library has burned. Orlean thought this idiom seemed odd.

Upon reflection, she thought it made sense: "Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual's consciousness is a collection of memories we've catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived."

According to Orlean, when we die, our "private library" will disappear. We can minimize that loss if we "take something from that internal collection and share it--with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited."

The Central Arkansas Library System believes stories are critical to libraries and living. CALS received a grant from the D.C. Public Library and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to create a DIY Memory Lab that we hope will help preserve more "private libraries."

Our Memory Lab will help patrons digitize their photographs, slides, and other two-dimensional materials. We will help patrons convert VHS, Beta, and audio cassettes from analog to digital. The CALS staff has also created programming to show patrons how to organize their personal archival materials, and the DIY Memory Lab will offer Oral History Toolkits for patrons to record their own oral histories. For more information about the CALS Memory Lab, Personal Archiving programs, or oral histories, go to RobertsLibrary.org/memorylab or email Heather Zbinden at hzbinden@cals.org.

The importance of thoughtful storytelling was made real for me in November when I visited Savannah, Ga., for the first time. As we often do when we visit a new city, my wife and I took a downtown walking tour. Our enthusiastic guide stopped at Reynolds Square, near a statue of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. He asked if anyone in the group was Methodist.

When I raised my hand, he asked if I knew about Wesley's connection to Savannah. I nodded that I did, and then blurted out that Wesley's time as the minister at the Church of England in Savannah was brief and disastrous. Wesley had refused to serve communion to a parishioner in his Savannah congregation who was a rival for the affections of a woman Wesley wanted to marry. He was dismissed and fled back to England.

Credible stories often reveal both redeeming virtues and less flattering flaws about our famous patriots, our beloved relatives, our spiritual leaders--and ourselves, when we're honest.

An article about heritage tourism in the Jan. 2, 2022, Pine Bluff Commercial highlighted why it's important to tell the good and the bad. The article quoted Suzzette Goldmon, a professor at UA-Pine Bluff, who advises heritage sites to "work to ensure inclusive and accurate storytelling."

I saw this practice in action when I visited the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah, one of the Telfair museums. A self-guided tour promised "an exploration of the lives and complicated relationships of the most and least powerful people in 19th century Savannah."

Sure enough, curators had taken care to offer the perspectives of all the people who lived and worked in this fine example of Regency architecture. This was a departure from when the house first opened to tourists. If my parents had toured this house in the 1950s, they would have been told all about the lives of the family who owned the mansion--but not of the people that family enslaved to make their leisure and comfort possible. Yet it is authentic and appropriate to hear their perspectives, despite what politicians might say to divide us by suggesting "woke" narrators or teachers (or librarians) are harming white children by making them loathe America or feel shame and guilt for the sins of their ancestors.

At CALS, we want to preserve your story--the good parts and the hard parts. In 2022, visit our DIY Memory Lab to share yours. Maybe through storytelling we will eventually gain keener insights and greater appreciation for a variety of lived experiences. And maybe a little more humility from knowing that we can never escape entirely the limitations of our unique vantage point.


Nate Coulter is executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System.


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