Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Tribute to Edith Ward and the Birmingham Public Library

Reading Room
Image via Flickr/Creative Commons


A copy of To Kill a Mockingbird signed by Harper Lee. Dr. Martin Luther King's signature on the warden's docket from his 1963 arrest in Birmingham. A scrapbook compiled by Edith Ward, a Birmingham woman born in 1883.

These are the things I had the pleasure and honor of seeing yesterday afternoon thanks to the Birmingham Public Library.

I am a member of the new Young Professionals Board of the Birmingham Public Library and yesterday during our first meeting we were given a tour of the Central Downtown Library's Southern History Collection, which includes rare books to which only 10 people in the library have access, and the Archives Department, which preserves documents, photographs and manuscripts on Birmingham and Jefferson County history.

I was so excited I left the library shaking.

Yes, I'm a nerd.

But I have a confession. Even though I was about to faint when I saw Lee's and King's signatures I was most amazed by those scrapbooks of Edith Ward. The paper dolls she collected as a child, the letters from boyfriends she received as a teen, and other items like a dance card, clippings of her favorite poems, and playbills from theater performances she attended all offered this slice of life not found in most high school history books. And even though I know that as a black person my life would have been nothing like hers had I been alive in the late 1800s, as a woman it was still fascinating to see how other women of that time lived.

For example, we had the chance to see a restored photo of Edith with her bike. She loved this bike, or her "wheel" as she called it, and wrote about it often in her diaries. For Edith and other young women of that time period their bikes represented freedom. A girl might hop on her bike and ride from the Southside all the way to Bessemer. These bikes were such a big deal that local ministers began preaching against the evils of the bicycle, claiming they had girls going wild.

I could have stayed in the basement of the library all day learning about Edith's life.

But I left there realizing two things: the importance of city libraries and the importance of documenting your life.

These pieces of history I had the opportunity to see yesterday would be gone, lost forever, if not for the restoration and preservation efforts of libraries. And there would be no pieces of history to preserve if not for the people who took the time to document their lives.

One might think something as simple as keeping a scrapbook is inconsequential and unimportant, but those who think that are wrong. Sharing your life isn't just about you; it's about representing your generation for the generations to come. So whether it's through a scrapbook, a journal, a book, or  a blog -- tell your story.

Crossposted at The Writeous Babe Project

2 comments:

  1. After years of wondering about my family I decided I’d stop wondering and learn. I logged on at ancestry.com (free to use at the BPL) and started researching and learning about my family. I am proud to know that my great-great-great-grandfather was named Felix Norrington. He lived in Georgia and was a shoemaker. He could not read or write. There’s still so much to research but I couldn’t agree more on the importance of documenting our lives.
    There’s an old gray photo album trimmed in gold on a table in the corner of the dimly-lit living room in my dad’s house. There’s another under it and more under that one. My favorite is the small black one. It keeps photos that belonged to my great grandmother. I never knew her—she died very young. However, I can always see those photos and get a glimpse into her life and even the neighborhood I grew up in before it surrendered to the ills of today. I have access to family photos from as early as the 1890s!! They are priceless! My sister and I have already bickered over who will inherit them  Since I’ve taken on the task of being the family historian I should they should pass on to me!
    -Deidre Clark

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think it's wonderful that you've taken on the task of being your family's historian and I hope you inherit those photo albums!

    ReplyDelete