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A Historical Witness Protection and Preservation Program

In the study and writing of history of any sort, there is no substitute for an eyewitness.

Granted, eyewitness accounts of any event often vary in perspective and details, just as different accounts of the same traffic accident illustrate. Nonetheless, such accounts tend to be more accurate, though admittedly flawed, than accounts of the accident told by someone who wasn't present and merely heard about the accident second or third hand. For that reason, it's always good to locate primary sources rather than rely solely on secondary or even tertiary sources.

For example, in studying the life of a figure from the past (e.g., Abraham Lincoln) and that person's experiences, it's far better to rely on an account by someone who knew him personally than on that of a person writing about him a hundred years later, although both sources might offer valuable insights. That's why I would put more confidence in what Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, wrote about him than in what Carl Sandburg wrote about him. The former knew Lincoln personally and worked with him daily for a number of years; the latter merely knew about him second hand and had never even met the man.

The late historian Frank Owsley noted that the generation that lived in the antebellum South and during and after the war knew about the society and culture of the South at that time far better than historians writing about it a hundred or more years later. They were eyewitnesses of it. But when that eyewitness generation passed into eternity, it was too late to access their accounts, unless, of course, they had written them down.

An eyewitness, Owsley wrote, is the historian's "star witness." When he or she passes, all that's left is inadequate, flawed, second-hand accounts that might not be as accurate and could even be, whether intentionally or not, misleading.

That's why it's so important that we, whether we are telling our family history or the history of the nation, take steps to protect and preserve the eyewitness accounts while those star witnesses are still with us. It's too later after they've passed.

Of the some 16 million Americans who served in World War II, fewer than about 300,000 are still living, and they are in their nineties. Every day, we lose an estimated 296 of those eyewitnesses. (The National World War II Museum's website has a state-by-state list of the number of surviving veterans of that conflict.)

Close behind the World War II vets are the veterans of the Korean War. And right behind them are the Vietnam veterans, an estimated 390 of whom are dying every day. Before we know it, the situation will be the same for the veterans of Desert Shield and Desert Storm (the war against Iraq in Kuwait), Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), and Iraqi Freedom (Iraq).

We must protect and preserve the memories and accounts of those veterans while they are still with us; otherwise, they will be lost forever.

The same can be said of the preservation of one's family history. Ask questions of the elderly. Get them to talk about their lives and cultures, their memories, the highs and lows of their lives, their aspirations, inspirations, and achievements. I wish now that I had done those things when my older relatives were still present.

Perhaps this was what one of our local junior high school history teachers had in mind years ago when he assigned his students to interview elderly life-long residents of the community. The students tape recorded their interviews and then wrote their accounts, which they then published in a series of booklets titled Echoes Travelers Rest, South Carolina: Reflections of the Past.

The local historical society is now pursuing the digitization of those original recordings to preserve that local history, thereby making it accessible to future generations that otherwise would never know who and what their community once was.

You, too, should have the foresight to take steps to preserve your own family and community history. This would include photos, documents, eyewitness accounts of various events, stories and legends, and many other sources of information. Then share them at every opportunity, especially with the young people around you.

But don't wait to begin the process. Do it now before it's forever too late!

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