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GREG HARTON: History may suffer from 'avalanche'

by Greg Harton | March 30, 2021 at 7:41 a.m.

History can disappear. It happens all the time.

The most attention-getting cases involve the dilapidation and eventual demolition of those old structures that provided the backdrop for everyday life and history-making moments in our communities. It takes a great deal of attention, and commitment of resources, to ensure the more significant ones remain a part of our communities' collective memories.

Can you imagine the University of Arkansas and the Fayetteville skyline without the twin towers of Old Main standing watch up on The Hill? It's the oldest building on the UA campus, a recognizable icon at the heart of the campus since the mid-1870s. It's hard to imagine it was shuttered in 1981 and came close to a face-to-face with a wrecking ball before wisdom prevailed and it was restored.

The disappearance of history also happens in smaller ways. Things as innocent as spring cleaning or a rearrangement of work space in old buildings have led to important photos and documentation of the past finding a new home in a landfill.

Not everything old is historic or even interesting. And trying to save everything will eventually lead to an unwanted appearance on the show "Hoarders."

Visit any museum that focuses on American history and you'll find artifacts that testify to what life was like in the past. Such collections don't just happen: Someone at some point had to have decided the artifacts had some historic, or at least nostalgic, value and were worth keeping around.

Last week I wrote about the KATV Collection of 26,000 hours of film and video news footage from the Little Rock TV station that began broadcasting back in 1953. Former news director Jim Pitcock had the foresight back in the 1970s to begin collecting significant footage and even catalog them. Now the Pryor Center of Arkansas Oral and Visual History is digitizing those moving images of Arkansas history, making them easily accessible and preservable.

Falling in love with a community or state instills a deep appreciation for its history and the artifacts, documents and photos that help inform us of what the past was like.

With the ubiquitous camera-in-the-pocket known as the smartphone, the number of photos taken has grown exponentially. We're a long way from those early images in which people had to stand or sit still for 10 or 20 seconds while the exposure was made. Today, almost nothing happens without a photo or video being made of it.

But what do we do with all that? People aren't printing off photos that can be "discovered" later in the back of an old home's closet. Indeed, when it comes to the preservation of photos that reflect our shared history, they're getting buried by a consuming avalanche of images inspired by smartphones. It's an embarrassment of riches. Discerning and preserving moments of real history are becoming the proverbial needle, not even in a haystack, but in a massively large hayfield, most of which only the owner has access to.

Today's events, people and structures -- tomorrow's community history -- are being photographed and video recorded more than ever but may become difficult for historians to discover, lost as they are in a gargantuan pile of selfies and shots of food.

Researchers estimate the number of photos taken worldwide every year grew from 80 billion in 2000 (when film was the primary medium) to more than 1.3 trillion within the last few years. This oversaturation already makes it difficult to recognize truly significant images.

Amazingly, the glut of photos could be a threat to the documentation of history, particularly local history.

In excavating today's story from the Mount Everest of images being taken in every community, tomorrow's historians are going to need a much bigger shovel.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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