Sunday, May 30, 2010

Four Generations

While the focus of this blog is the Ethel Index, there will be posts that are only tangentially connected to the immense catalog. As I have mentioned, Grand-mom's had museum like qualities related to the amount of collections it housed. On the day I went up to get the index, I spent the first hour exploring the sprawling rooms, each filled with interesting and mundane objects. Aside from the index, and the pictures of my family displayed on the wall, there weren't many objects that I felt the need to rescue. As the weeks go on I will post about a couple of the things that I decided to claim. One of the things I was most surprised to find was a single photo album in the basement hidden between a stack of magazines on a bookshelf. The surprise wasn't really finding a photo album, but rather it was the first photo in the album:

This is a baby picture of myself that I had never seen (or at least have no memory of ever seeing). It is almost as if the photo album was left for me to find. There are actually a lot of interesting pictures in the album. Some of which I will give to family members. Most amazingly there is one of my maternal grand-mother with my mother and one of my cousins in her house in south Philly, which I only have the slightest memory of.

Here is the other picture of note from the album:

This is the four generation picture. Harry Bloomfield (father of Ethel), Ethel Snyder (Mother of Fred), Fred Snyder (father of Donald) and again baby me. I so wish my father had kept his shirt.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Throw It Away

I think the other family member who is as interested in Grand-mom's index is my cousin Erica. Erica shared one of my posts about this blog on Facebook today mentioning that when Grand-mom was asked what should happen to her index after she passed away, she replied, "throw it away. No one else would ever be able to use it or would want it for anything." I think this response really characterizes her attitude toward life. She loved her family, but as mentioned previously was fiercely independent and completely did things her own way. I don't think she created the index for others to use or marvel at--she did it completely for herself.

In her Facebook post, Erica also referred to the index as the internet on paper. My uncle Jimmy also stated that he had told his mother that everything she has been doing over the past fifteen years is already on the World Wide Web. I think this is part of my interest in the index. As a Ph.d student in American Studies, I began studying the Internet in 1999, and actually helped to organize several of the earliest academic conferences dedicated to the subject through my involvement with the now defunct Cyberculture Working Group at the University of Maryland in College Park. My dissertation, which I defended last July, examined issues of labor, consumption, identity, and play in the failed Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) The Sims Online. Certainly part of my interest in the index stems in my research and teaching (at UMBC) about the emergence of new media. Some of the questions I hope to explore in this blog are the connections and differences between the index and the Internet.

When I describe the project to other people, one of the major questions I get is "why did she do it?" I think this is a fair question. Part of the answer is about who she was. Not only was she a collector, but she was also trained as a research librarian, taking graduate classes in Library Science. Here is an enlarged "business card" that I found in her house while retrieving the index:

The index reflects not only an attempt to understand the world around her, but also her desire to organize it. In addition, even though the creation of the index does not seem practical, her answer to Erica's question as what to do with the index when she died was. There was no thought of grandeur or importance, only of utility. She felt that no one would be able to use it as a resource. She created the index for herself. If you asked her why she created the index, her answer reflected her pragmatism--she collected and organized these facts to keep her mind sharp. Her mind was so important to her that she decided that she would exercise it every day. It worked, as she was able to keep her intelligence and wit until the end. She trained herself to never stop thinking and learning. This is the aspect of the index that interests me the most.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who Has Time To Count?

I don't think that I will ever count every entry but I did want to give everyone a sense of the size of the index. I estimated the number of entries in the purex carton that contained the homers at 550. For the most part, I packed about eight of these cartons into every crate. There are 21 crates. If we go with the 550 number that puts the total number of entries somewhere in the neighborhood of...

550 * 8 * 21 = 92400.

My lack of statistical knowledge aside, I would say there could be anywhere between 80000 and 100000 entries in the index. To the best of my knowledge my grand-mom worked on her index over the past three decades. If we go with the 92400 number, this means that she completed roughly 256 entries a year. My original hope was to scan the entire index. I really doubt that is possible. It isn't just a matter of scanning the entries but also I need to crop the scanned image down to a manageable size. It took me more than an hour to scan the 20 images I was working with for yesterday's post. One of my friends suggested that I outsource the scanning to India (for a fun essay on outsourcing check out A.J. Jacobs attempt to outsource his entire life to India in the book, The Guinea Pig Diaries). I think just the cost of shipping the index to India would be prohibitive. For the time being I am going to browse the index for interesting entries to discuss in the blog. One thing I would like to start working on is returning the cartons to their alphabetical organization. Whatever order my grand-mom had placed the cartons in was lost during the move. Part of the issue is space...right now the index is housed in my garage. I am really not sure where I can store 90000 slips of paper in my house. Here is a picture of the index in its current location:

Once the index is back into alphabetical order, I could feasibly use it as it was intended. When that happens I am open for requests--let me know what you want me to look up and scan.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

D'oh and Other Index Worthy Homers

I have been trying to describe the index to a couple of friends and don't really have the language or understanding yet to effectively communicate exactly what it is. It is really something that needs to be experienced. The index is currently in my garage (I will post a picture soon) and today I decided to pull out a single carton to rummage through. First let me explain what a carton is. The index was not really created using index cards, but rather recycled slips of paper, cardboard, and whatever material was available to my grand-mom. She would collect these facts and gather them together in other recycled boxes. These included all kinds of boxes, including milk and orange juice containers, packaging for toys and household products. Here is a picture of the carton I randomly chose today:

As you can see the carton is recycled from a purex laundry detergent box. I haven't yet been able to calculate how many cards are in this box, which will be a task for another day. At least for a time, the index was organized alphabetically. Here is an image of the first card in the purex box:

This is the first "homer" entry. It is interesting to me how she began the card with very general information but at some point updated it to include the connection to "The Simpsons" and Homer's famous catch phrase "D'oh." Also of interest is the fact that this card contains both handwritten notes and cut-outs from a newspaper/magazine. Throughout the index this is very common. There are some cards which are completely handwritten, while others are completely clipped from another source. Others, like the one above contain elements of both.

There are many entries in the index that contain very little information. The second card is a perfect example:

Without any context it is impossible to know exactly to what this card is referring to. Obviously any google search of homer cartoon is going to return us right back to The Simpsons. I will show another card later in this post that contains even less information than this one.

While the examples shown thus far have been pretty simple and straightforward, the next card begins to demonstrate some of the complexity that many of the entries contain. Here is the next entry for Homer:

While the entry contains a very basic overview of Homer and his works, the entry does not end here. The entry is actually on a folded scrap of paper, that when unfolded looks like this:

The paper itself is dated 9/10/92 and appears to be a spreadsheet price guide for White Rose Food. There are a lot of numbers included but I don't really know what they mean. Tucked inside the spreadsheet are the following clippings:

Although according to Homer it is "tedious to tell again tales already plainly told," this collected clippings style is replicated throughout the index, and in fact, the very next Homer entry has numerous clippings tucked inside its fold. The entry is for Homer, Alaska (population in 1990, 3680):

Included are a business card for Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, an organization located in Homer Alaska, and a complete clipping for the article, "Long days in a raw landscape" written by Christopher Reynolds that was published in the Los Angeles Times (though no date is cited or included).

The next card in the index also represents a major trend in the index, the archiving of movies based on their short reviews in magazines and newspapers. This one is for the 1989 Jim Belushi and Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, Homer and Eddie. I have never seen this movie but maybe now I will:

As mentioned earlier, some of the cards hold almost no information at all. Or maybe there really is nothing of interest in Homer, Georgia:

The next two entries include an opera singer named Homer and a Portuguese dramatist nicknamed "The Homer of Portugal."

The next enrty, which is the next to last Homer included in the index, is a surprise return to Homer Simpson, but this time information about his character and his voice actor are included:

Finally, the last Homer entry is actually housed in two separate packets. The entry is for the 19th century American painter, Winslow Homer. Included in these entries are over 20 magazine and newspaper clippings representing his works of art. I have included a couple of them below:

I think this was an interesting first exercise in my attempt to examine the index. It really is amazing how many entries there are and I can't imagine having the time to read, let alone scan, everyone of them. The range of topics covering homer might actually end up being a good representation of the entire index. At the moment it is really to early to start making conclusions about what it all means, but it certainly is providing an interesting window into the history of the world, of America, and of my grand-mom.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Welcome to the Ethel Index

My grand-mom was always unique. I know people talk about the colorful characters in their families, but really they got nothing on my grand-mom. She was fiercely independent and always did things her way. Sadly she passed away last week. She will be missed.

When I think of my grand-mom, I think of two things: Her love of music and her passion for collecting. The collection that has fascinated me the most is her index. Over the past thirty years she has been collecting various facts, attaching them to small index card sized scraps of paper and cardboard, and adding them to her index. While I have not had time (I am not sure I ever will have enough time) to read even a small fraction of these facts, the ones that stood out today include an entry on sand, a group of entries on china, an entry for the album night ripper by girl talk, and an entry for John Hughes. John Hughes really sticks out because the fact was initially created sometime in the 1980s and then updated last year after his death.

My hope is to begin scanning these cards in to share with interested family members and maybe some random onlookers. Ethel's index is really an amazing thing and I feel that it should be remembered and saved.

Today I ventured to her house and packed the entire index into crates with the goal of transporting it from her home in Woodlynne NJ to my home in Columbia Maryland. The index fit into 22 crates which just barely fit into my CR-V.

Here are some pictures of the index as it existed in her home.