During my college years, I had the great pleasure of spending a summer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Being an enthusiast of outdoor adventure and having spent many days throughout my life among the great valleys and peaks that define the area, I have a great respect for and feeling of awe that accompanies me while there. Many of life’s most poignant lessons have been taught to me among the Tetons.
During this particular summer, I was assisting guests on a scenic float trip down the Snake River that meandered through Grand Teton National Park. I was intrigued to observe these people and listen to their stories as they experienced these natural wonders. I had become well acquainted with the phenomena that created the pristine mountains and valleys; had familiarized myself with the plants and wildlife that resided therein; and became a student of the local history that surrounded the area. I enjoyed sharing these details with my guests and answering their questions as best I could. Many of the experiences from that summer and other summers, falls, winters and springs throughout my life are recorded within a collection of journals I have kept.
One of my primary duties included shuttling the guests along with their raft and guide to the beginning of the excursion, helping them launch, and then proceeding to the takeout point to wait for their arrival, an obvious process for most. However, as I was prepared to launch one such trip, one of the guests was trying to determine what they should bring along with them and asked, “So, do we takeout here as well?”
Hopefully, by the end of the trip, this guest gained a valuable understanding regarding rivers. In the natural world, unlike the “Jungle Cruise” at Disney Land, the river continues onward in constant progression. It is always changing and adapting to natural circumstances. The river water does not circle around and around the same course day in and day out. Rather, it continues on in constant progression, carrying the sediments from the beginning and depositing them along the way to fortify the future.
Similarly, the progress of human civilization does not and should not remain channeled in a circular course. Rather, it is and should be progressing onward and upward as we adhere to basic principles that keep us on track.
However, too often, we find ourselves trapped, learning and relearning difficult lessons and principles that have already been taught in the fiery crucible of human experience. It’s tragic that the furnace has to be relit in seeming perpetuity to reteach those same courses.
As George Santayana famously quipped: “Those who don’t learn history, are doomed to repeat it.”
As a society, it is ever so important that we take time to study and understand the past. So much has been written. Even more has been said. The more time we take to discover the lives and experiences, the thoughts and perspectives of those who came before us, the more likely we will be to avoid making their same mistakes, to build upon their successes, and to appreciate the foundational strength they provided.
So, what resources are available to help us explore the past?
Your local library is a great place to start. Beyond the plethora of various reading materials, from books, to journals, to magazines that we might expect to find, many libraries maintain vast collections of archival materials such as old documents, manuscripts, photos, videos, or audio files that are available for public perusal.
These materials may be found at public libraries, educational institutions, and various government libraries.
Historically, they have been difficult to locate and have required extensive hours of exploration before locating the items or topics in which you have interest.
In today’s world, however, that process has become significantly easier. Over the last few years, libraries have begun digitizing these materials in hopes of making them more readily available for public dissemination.
Through the use of technology, these materials have become much more findable. Through internet search engines, you are able to quickly locate items relating to various historical figures or topics and the institutions or individuals maintaining those items. In addition, through the various digital library platforms those entities employ, you can quickly view and search through the materials to discover and explore the past in greater depth.
Thankfully, efforts are being made by the owners of these materials to make them more widely available. They recognize that greater value in historical scholarship is garnered through collaborative efforts.
Initiatives such as the Open Archives Initiative are helping to bring materials together in a succinct and standard format. Various entities such as the Digital PublicLibrary of America with it’s various regional hubs such as the Mountain WestDigital Library are greatly aiding this effort by bringing together in one the various historical collections currently owned or hosted by separate, disparate institutions.
Whether your interest in the past is founded in scholarly research, personal curiosity, or some other motivation, visiting your local, educational, and/or governmental library will provide the guidance and resource necessary to launch your exploration into the past.
As Confucius has been credited with saying, “Study the past, if you would define the future.”