December 21, 2008
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A Tinderbox Task: Keeping Track of Folks

by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

I'm reading Richardson’s Emerson: the mind on fire . He’s an interesting fellow, and he formed an even more interesting circle. In fact, you could argue that Emerson’s fireside was the place where the real definition of “the American” was fixed.

Besides, my wife is working on a Masters in this period, so I’m bound to find it interesting.

Problem is, it’s not my period. Sometimes I need for a scorecard. Sarah Ripley: is she connected to George Ripley? Is Mary Emerson the sister, or the aunt? Just a hint of who and what people were would help a lot; sometimes, all you need is a poke to get on the right track.

Lydia Child? Oh, she's the woman who always brought lunch to her husband who was in debtor’s prison.

An encyclopedia, or wikipedia, is nice to have, but it's really too much and too slow. I’m used to having the Oxford Classical Dictionary ready to hand for Antiquity; I don’t think there’s anything like this for 1830 Boston.

But, you know, it should be easy enough to make in Tinderbox. Tinderbox could take care of lots of clerical minutiae — searching, sorting, organizing. And Tinderbox can remind you what you’re missing: who needs to have birthdates checked, who needs more narrative filled in. You don’t need a database: I fancy a few hundred people would cover the crying needs, and that’s a small Tinderbox document.

You could share the work among a bunch of hands — either a class (in which case it could be the seed of something like Landow’s Victorian Web ) or just as a study-group enterprise. I bet a grad student with a flair for witty commentary could publish this. (Another example: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew ). If you’re managing an enterprise product, I imagine the same sort of information on your customers would be great to have — and building the system would be a great assignment for an intern or an newcomer.

It's not just academic. Think about all the family you know — or can remember, or about whom you remember stories. Will your niece’s children meet these people, or hear these stories? Write stuff down. And I don’t know of a better way to write this stuff down so it can be used, so it doesn’t turn into a big bunch of cards in the back of a drawer.

Want to work on ways and means? What to hear how to do it? Want to lend a hand? Email me.