Thursday, February 19, 2009

Things fall in place

I have worked in the Carolina Room long enough now to have gone through an annual review (which went fine, d.g.).

When I began I knew the broad outlines of Charlotte history, but not the names and personalities of historical figures or the characteristics of particular places now changed, changed utterly. My colleagues' familiarity with old Charlotte still impresses me. I don't say I've acquired it myself, but at least I begin to see how it is acquired: by patient accumulation of knowledge.

A single fact without context requires the effort of memorization in order to be retained. If it sticks, though, another fact will come along sooner or later that connects to it, and then one has the beginning of a narrative. For instance, I was at the Mint Museum for a party last week and looked up at the names of the original benefactors who had moved the old Mint to its current location (with labor from the WPA). I recognized a name or two and made note of others, resolving to learn the stories behind them, too. In the following week a caller asked about Mellanay Delhom, whose ceramic collection was donated to the Mint in 1968. Looking up her story led to some info about Mary Myers Dwelle, (pictured above) whose name I had seen on the benefactors list. Another caller in the same week asked about Heriot Clarkson, a lawyer and judge with a long career in Charlotte from the 1890s to the 1940s. Clarkson's name came up tangentially as I was researching a query about the Blue Ridge Parkway: he was a developer of "Little Switzerland", an early resort in the region. The separate queries led to separate answers, but the incidental data connected to each other.

The difference between knowing isolated facts and appreciating the bigger picture is like the difference between finding an address on a map and knowing the landmarks and neighborhoods. A literal illustration of that difference occurred this week. A visitor to the library wanted to know the precise location of a spot depicted in an old photograph. With the aid of a city directory we established it and connected it to another photograph. Today a fruitless search for an image of a particular shop that had once stood on West Trade St nonetheless obliged me to fix in my mind the appearance and spatial relation of the hotels, the train station, and the church on that street sixty years ago. As I told one of my colleagues, I'm beginning to feel like I'm from here.

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