By now we're used to thinking that you can find anything on the Internet. And that’s true, if what you need is everything, but it takes a certain set of special skills to find some things—and those are the skills I’ve been forced to develop over the past year. And they aren’t, even now, all that: I start with a list, a list of photographs and a list of names. One name at a time—I search the White Pages, I search Google. If I’m very lucky, I find an obituary. An obituary for the original contributor, an obituary for their children. Sometimes for their grandchildren. I take the names, I take the addresses—I attempt contact. Sometimes successfully—I have two thick folders of correspondence to my left. Underneath them, though, is another folder, not quite as thick—the returned letters, the missed contacts. Missed because the people have moved. Missed, perhaps, because they have died.
This can be a melancholy job. But a glance inside the magazine suggests something of its value (the magazine’s). Many people have contributed photographs over the past nigh-thirty years. Some of these people are dead. Some of them left no spouse, no child. For some of them, the presence of their photograph in this magazine is the only evidence I could find that they ever existed at all. And yet, there they are—they and their parents, their ancestors, their own relics of the past (these relics, too, having no traceable lineage, now doubly preserved in the pages of the magazine). The past continues in the present, remains suspended for us to encounter and experience. It’s banal to complain about the ahistorical nature of modernity, but I think it’s true that—whatever ahistorical forces are at work—these photographs of lost faces and captions with forgotten names present a powerful antidote.
I started this blog entry with a lot of blather about detectives. Ellery Queen—a once-famous and now nearly forgotten author of the genre’s Golden Age—once observed that a detective is a prophet looking backwards. He was, of course, stealing a line from Schlegel, who was himself talking about historians. Historians, detectives, editorial interns—men and women engaged in the important task of reading and valuing these glimpses into the past—we are all of us on the same work. And this is, of course, the work of Alabama Heritage itself, which is one reason I am grateful for the opportunity to spend a year crawling through its files and searching out these distant voices.
Postscript: If you or anyone you know has contributed images to Alabama Heritage in the past—and if you have not heard from us—please contact us. We would love to touch base again.