29 March 2010

Day 2: A History of Ghosts

Currently Reading:
A History of Ghosts by Peter H. Aykroyd.  ISBN: 9781605298757.

As I begin reading this book I realized it's mostly a catalog of mostly dead people.  While these people have led rather interesting lives by most standards, communing or pretending to commune with the dead, this is probably not what I was expecting when I first picked up this book.  However it is fascinating in the way that Aykroyd approached the topic.  We are introduced to psychic mediums or persons of related phenomena and their supporters or critics rather than supporting or discounting psychic mediums himself.  While it is not an overwhelmingly scientific or academically rigorous attempt, it allows those who believe to continue to believing and those who prefer to scoff to continue scoffing.

The catalog feel of the book brought me back to my own conversations with the dead, though somewhat one-sided.  I do not speak with the dead through mediums or voodoo magic, but through the collection of a skeleton of data, which when fleshed out becomes the history of unique individuals with their own stories.  I'm of course talking about my volunteer work at the Wood County District Public Library in Bowling Green, Ohio.  Every Monday, or at least most Mondays, I arrive at the library and head off towards our card catalog of obituaries and grab a drawer or two depending on how ambitious I feel.  These drawers were kept by some enterprising library and contain obituaries that mostly range from 1960-1985, with a few oddballs thrown in.  The obituaries were clipped from newspapers and pasted on old catalog cards, which then went into a small series of catalog drawers.

I'm sure this was an extremely efficient way of doing things before databases came along and up and negated all of that librarians hard work.  Now in an attempt to reclaim that ever valuable library resource known as space, I'm going through the card catalog obituaries and comparing what we have in our online database and removing what cards are available on microfilm.  I have a dirty secret, as a history major and someone who enjoys discussing storage of data, I love microfilm.  Anyway, the majority of the cards are from the Daily Sentinel Tribune, Bowling Green's very own newspaper, however there are occasional cards from the Perrysburg Messenger Journal, the Toledo Blade, and more commonly than you would think there are cards that have no dates, incomplete dates, and/or mistakes.  Those that have mistakes or conflicting death dates are set aside and corrected by other volunteers who prefer quicker, but less thorough data entry/management.  And also I seem to have forgotten the password to actually edit information in the database because I simply haven't done so in awhile.

But how is this like communing with the dead?  For me, by simply interacting with information about the past I am learning and incorporating it into my current body of knowledge where it bounces around and gets dragged out whenever it's useful.  So perhaps the conversation is a little one-sided, but other people (and therefore "conversation") is still the number one way humans receive their information, however indirect the person-to-person contact may be.  Although I am probably not the intended audience of someone who published an obituary ten years ago, I have still acquired that knowledge and am now able to create my own information or data that will add to the conversation at large regarding our past and the people in it.  In a world where we are increasingly interacting more with objects rather than people (when's the last time someone said hello to you, or you to them, which one of you had iPod earbuds or an iPhone occupying all of your attention?), real conversations have become rare.

I think people are becoming more and more comfortable interacting with objects rather than other people, perhaps it is a way to avoid facing our own mortality.  Whenever the iPhone dies all we have to do is plug it back in, and while text can be deleted with as rapidly and compulsively as people check Facebook (myself indcluded) only you will have forgotten about that drunken rampage you went on last night.  But how much do these interactions really benefit us?  While it's useful to know that Ken what's-his-face went home with some girl last night and his mother disapproves, is it really helping in our daily lives, is it provoking us into deeper conversations or relationships with the people we "friended?"  Probably not.  And maybe my conversations with the dead of Bowling Green aren't exactly directly beneficial to me, but they are beneficial to the countless number of people interested in genealogical research or similar pursuits.  At the very least it has made me more familiar with my surrounding area by exposing me to town names, companies, and common last names in the area (for instance, there are surprisingly few Campbells in the area despite how robust our stock usually is).  Sometimes I even pass along funny or interesting names to my fiance, if only because we are somewhat immature.

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