Friday, 28 January 2011

How to make the future happy

Years of drought with record high summer temperatures and little snowmelt? A decade of farm crisis and debt? Families losing their farms and moving into the towns and cities? Farm life changed forever as farms changed from families to corporations?

To what decade am I referring? The 1980s, of course.

A few months ago I was speaking to a visitor following one of my tours and he said rather offhandedly that the largest drought and farm exodus was the Great Depression. I said that actually the 1980s drought was as fierce as the 1930s and that, combined with the high interest rates of the time, forced a large number of families from their farms.

This shocked the visitor and he asked why no one knew about it. And it got me thinking. Was he correct, do very few people know about it? And, if that’s true, why? So I decided to do some investigating.

There is quite a bit of information gathered on this decade from the American perspective. There is also some Canadian information available. And the Research Centre and researchers certainly have all of the meteorological and related data. But what I can’t easily find (and, no, I have not done an exhaustive search but have spoken to several people and organizations) was the social history – stories collected about how the lives of individuals and families changed in southern Alberta during this time (that’s the stuff that most interests me).

In my opinion, it is incredibly important that these stories be collected. These stories highlight the lives of individuals. But on a larger scale these stories help explain how many of our communities in southern Alberta changed over the past 30 years. These stories also give a personal element to the change in farming from family farms to companies. I really do want to get more stuff specifically related to southern Alberta in the 1980s.

But thinking about the types of documents and stories needed to better tell the story of the 1980s, got me thinking in general about the types of documents and information to be found when doing historical research. For example, I usually find it easier to research an older event than a more recent events. It is often difficult to find written information on recent events in museums and archives.

Many people don't believe that recent events are important. Or they don't want to offend (or even just give neutral information) people who are still alive. Or they can't see how their story could be part of a larger story. I encourage people to write down these sort of stories – of changes and moves and good times and bad and everyday remembrances – and to think about what documents may be useful in telling our individual stories and our community stories. And to be proactive about saving them and, someday, donating them.

People who research past events so often wish that someone had got around just a little sooner to collecting so that stories weren't lost. Wouldn't it be amazing if we had a community so aware that today's events are tomorrow's history that we carefully and methodically record and save things today? The future will thank us.

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