TIME BEFORE HISTORY
By William Urban
In the past weeks Iíve taken odd moments to work on parts of the project on Monmouth mayors that offer the maximum of frustration Ė the decade and a half of Warren County history before the appearance of the Atlas in 1846.
What we know about the early days of settlement and the first efforts to organize government consists of census reports, land records, a handful of laws, some court cases and memories recorded several decades later.
Census records for 1830 and 1840 give only the name of the head of the household, then the number of male and female dependents in five year intervals. Only in 1850 do we get all names, exact birth years, relationships, and estimates of the value of real estate and property. Unfortunately for the project, several of the early mayors were no longer around by 1850.
Deaths are not always recorded, but marriages usually were. That tells you what people considered most important! Land records and tax records are less informative than one might imagine, but the early county records have more in them than one might imagine.
Still, all these materials are on fairly durable paper. None of the 20th century wood pulp that turns yellow and then brittle in sunlight. So we can count on having them around for quite a while to come.
It is something else with our modern records. Modern newsprint is very perishable, and microfilms wear out easily, disappear (as did one set of rolls of the Review-Atlas that Ralph Eckley had hoped to use after the hard copy was sent to the archives at WIU), and are flammable. In any case, microfilm is being supplanted by the WEB, which as we know, doesnít really exist in the traditional sense of library shelves and archives. And even the excellent WIU archive depends on state funding, which is far from reliable.
Yes, there is back-up. But donít count on it. For years I backed up all my files on the big floppy disks, but eventually had to pitch them because my new computer didnít have a drive for them; now my little floppy disks are becoming obsolete. When will my Zip-drive and CD join them? Moreover, Iíve been told that even if we save an old machine here and there, the disks themselves will go bad.
So, if all our storage facilities, tapes and disks go to Beta heaven, which already awaits our shelves of VHS tapes, what can scholars expect a century from now? That is, if we donít have a nuclear bomb wipe most of our records out with its electro-magnetic pulse; a pulse might do more damage to our modern society than the explosion, since it would melt all nearby computer chips (and how far away is Ďnearbyí?)
Thus, future scholars could be looking at the period before 1850 as comparatively better than after 2000.
On that cheery note, I shall go off to my cave for winter hibernation. To catch some family time, some reading, and some watching of shadows on the wall.
Monmouth Daily Review Atlas (Dec. 23, 2005), 4.