In honor of this year’s Blog Action Day theme of Poverty, I want to point people to examples of ways in which poverty is documented in archives, manuscript collections and elsewhere.
The most obvious types of records that document poverty are:
- Photographs: Calisphere’s themed collections for the period 1929-1939: The Great Depression include images of the Dust Bowl Migration as well as general photos documenting Hard Times. The Library of Congress When They Were Young photo retrospective of childhood has a number of striking images.
- Music: Such as what can be found in the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
- Newspapers: Which can include everything from human interest stories to classified ads – increasingly available online from sources including Google News Archive Search and the fee based NewspapeArchive.com.
- Census Records: The Census website has a special section dedicated to US Census Bureau poverty statistics, including a page of links to other sites dedicated to poverty research and statistics.
There are also organizations dedicated to research on poverty – such as the Chronic Poverty Research Centre, University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research and National Poverty Center. The archival records from groups such as these could show ways that organizations have addressed poverty over time, as well as the history of poverty itself.
Archives do their best job with records produced in the process of carrying out tasks related to business or personal life, and many of those who are living in the greatest poverty aren’t generating (or saving) their own records. Is being documented by photographers, news articles and the Census Bureau the same thing as telling your own story through an oral history or having your photographs, personal papers or other life documents archived? One of the most fascinating things about primary source materials in general, and archival records in specific, is the first hand view that it can lend the researcher. That sense of stepping into their shoes – of having a chance to retrace their steps.
There are certainly institutions whose records cast light on the lives of those in poverty such as homeless shelters, social service agencies and health clinics – but I would put forth that we are rarely capturing the first person voices of those living in poverty. I am realistic. I know that those dealing with the basic issues of food, shelter and personal safety are likely not thinking about where to record their oral history or how to get their personal papers into an archive or manuscript collection. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish there wasn’t a better way. These are people who deserve to be represented with their own voice to the people of the future.
I am enamored of the idea of recording people’s own stories as is being done in each of the following examples:
- StoryCorps which has arranged for all their interviews to be preserved by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center
- Memory Archive which, as of October 2008, has 5 stories listed on the Poverty category page
- The Oxford Project covered in the CNN article Photo project gives voice to ‘backbone of America’
I want to end my post with an inspirational project. Photographer Camilo José Vergara has been photographing the built environment in poor, minority communities across the United States since 1977. He has re-photographed the same locations many times over the years. This permits him to create time lapse series of images that show how a space has changed over time. He has published a number of books (the most recent of which is American Ruins) as well as having created an interactive website.
The Invincible Cities website documents Harlem, NY, Camden, NJ and Richmond, CA. After selecting one of these three locations you are greeted by a map, timeline and photographs. You can walk through time at individual locations and watch storefronts change, buildings get demolished and fashions shift. The interface lets you select images by location, theme and year. My description can’t do it any justice – just go explore for yourself: Invincible Cities. The site explains that his next goal is to create a ‘Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto’ (VE for short) that covers all of the United States.
In the March 2008 PopPhoto.com article Camilo Jose Vergara: 30 Years Documenting the American Ghetto, we find the following interesting quotes from the photographer:
“Once photography at its best and most prestigious became art and the rewards went to photographer artists, the field became uninterested and unable to significantly contribute to the creation of a historical record, that is to the making of an inventory of our world and to illustrate how it changes,” asserts Vergara, adding that the Internet is an ideal way to bypass traditional museums. “You can realize a larger world that can support a different kind of photography.”
The Internet is especially well-suited to housing a multi-layered history of the ghettos’ evolution. Advances in technology allow the designers to arrange images in complex ways: links take the viewer to a page that gives census data; click on a color-coded street map on the left side of the screen to pinpoint exact addresses of panoramic views, artifacts, architectural details, building interiors or street-level views. “These kinds of things were unimaginable when I started the project,” he says.
Can we expect projects like this to give individuals of the future a real taste of what life was like for the poor in US cities or around the world? Should part of our efforts at diversity of representation in the historical record specifically address preservation of the records and manuscripts of those living in poverty? Lots to think about! I hope this post has introduced you to new resources and projects. Please share any I missed in the comments below.
- Encouraging Participation in the Census
- Preserving Jewish Memory: Family Photos Join Oral History in Centropa Movies
- Using WWI Draft Registration Cards for Research: NARA Records Provide Crucial Data
- Library of Congress Inauguration 2009 Audio and Video Project