Sunday, December 18, 2011

Recovering Memory in Joplin

From the Flickr group Lost Photos of Joplin
I taught in Joplin, Missouri for 12 years, from 1996 to 2008, and the town has been much on my mind this year since the devastating tornado on May 21st.  The loss of life and property were terrible, with 160 dead and in excess of $2 billion in property damage. The tornado tore a gash across the center of town, destroying 7000 homes and many of the people inside of them.

Lost Photos of Joplin
The tornado was also destructive to the history of Joplin. The twister missed the historic downtown and the local history museum, but it tore up many historic buildings (particularly residences). More damagingly, it destroyed the personal history of many of who survived. The tornado ripped the roofs off of houses and scattered possessions over miles, newspapers stories were full of tales of personal photographs, birth certificates, and family heirlooms being found in yards and fields for weeks. And the area was hit by drenching rains for days after the tornado, destroying the personal libraries and documents left unprotected in those shattered roofless homes.

Now an interesting virtual effort to reunite tornado survivors to their lost photographs has been launched a Facebook named Lost Photos of Joplin, MO Tornado. The idea is to use the social networking power of Facebook to allow volunteers to post photographs they found after the storm with the owners. There is also a website, Joplin Rescued Photos, and a Flickr group. Here is a Joplin newspaper story and an American Public Media radio piece about the effort. Photographs that were damaged in the storm can even be restored by the volunteers at Operation Photo Rescue.

What is most interesting to me is the decentralized but highly effective nature of the effort, made possible by social networking tools, the proliferation of scanners, and existing networks such as area churches and genealogical societies. The process will probably play out over years, and many of the photographs will never find their owners, but it is hard to imagine such an effort even taking place just a few years ago.

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