In my days as a grad student, I spent hour after hour in the Public Archives of Canada, immersed in letters, diaries, memos and official reports composed in western Canada a century earlier by government officials, missionaries, merchants and settlers. The information and hints in the documents helped me build up a vivid picture of a long-past era, complete with character sketches of the documents’ authors.
The archivists who organized and tended the records were as impressive as the documents themselves. Unfailingly, they found the records I asked for and delivered them almost before I was ready to work with them.
Since that time, I’ve become a pack rat. I keep books, old documents and pictures because of the pleasure they give me by triggering memories of events I’ve participated in and people I’ve known. In a way, they form the scrapbook of my mind. Now, another type of scrapbook has entered my life: I Googled my name and found all sorts of memory triggers, some expected and others undreamed of.
First, the expected items: links to this blog, my Linked-In profile, my Twitter profile and comments I had left on other blogs. Then there were the books. Jill Bobula has generously listed me as an editor of her remarkable We are Powerful children’s books, so my name appears in numerous links to libraries and educational resources. I had served as editor for G.D. Mitchell’s anecdotal history of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, RCHA – Right of the Line, which led to links at Amazon and numerous military history resources. Finally, there were references to my membership in various associations, including the Heidelberg Digital Imaging Association, the Knights of Columbus and my home parish.
Less expected were links to the history of my home town, the cemetery records listing many of my relatives, obituary notices of family members and even a reference to the honours paper I wrote at the University of Regina. A scan of the birth announcement my wife and I put into the Ottawa Citizen when our elder son was born brought back particularly poignant memories.
Totally unexpected, though, was the link to footnotes in a book published in 1996 by the University of Toronto. During my days at the Archives in the mid-1980′s, I had met a young professor from the University of Saskatchewan who was conducting research into the history of residential schools in Canada; I casually mentioned that some of the records I had been reviewing might pertain to his research. We didn’t meet again. More than a decade later, Professor James R. Miller published Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. In two footnotes, he acknowledged our brief conversation, giving me credit for the reference to records he undoubtedly would have found without any assistance from me. Discovering these footnotes was remarkable. Sixteen years after the fact, Google had drawn my attention to an act that spoke eloquently about the integrity and generous spirit of a dedicated historian.
How does Google compare to the archivists? It may retrieve its information more quickly than the archivists, but it is much less discriminating. To get through the listings that referred to me, I had to wade through great numbers of near misses and mistaken identities. However, that’s not the important comparison. How does it compare to my own record-keeping? Very well indeed for the items that make their way into the public domain. The surprise is how much information actually leaks and the extent of the character sketch that could be constructed. And for my own interest, Google will be at least an extra page in my mental scrapbook.