Digitization at the BPL and a Digital Library for Massachusetts: Chapter 3

Authored by Christina Manzo, Digital Projects Intern, on March 28, 2012

FAME! (I’m Gonna Live Forever!)

“Every last one, route one, rural heart’s got a story to tell.
Every grandma, in-law, ex-girlfriend
Maybe knows it just a little too well.
Whether you’re late for church or you’re stuck in jail,
Hey, words gonna get around.
Everybody dies famous in a small town.”
-Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town

One of the biggest surprises our team has encountered during this grant has been the overwhelming demand for the digitization of yearbooks. When we first began this project, we assumed that librarians would be clamoring to give us the rare manuscripts and antique printed treasures that researchers flock from miles away to see. But instead, we asked librarians to start with what their patrons use the most. The answer was overwhelmingly clear: it seemed yearbooks were the new ‘it girl’ of digitization. So when our team traveled to the Newton Free Library, we weren’t surprised to find that an almost century-long run of the Newton Public High School yearbooks was at the top of this library’s digitization ‘to do’ list.

I think the reason that people are naturally drawn to yearbooks has something to do with their intensely personal nature. It’s not only a snapshot in history, but a snapshot of who you used to be and how you’ve changed (or haven’t changed in some cases). And I think that desire for progress is what keeps library patrons coming back to their old high school yearbooks. It’s a direct measurement of personal growth through the lens of your former self. In fact, when I was younger I used to write letters to my future self in the back pages of my yearbooks. I would tell myself things like, ‘I hope by now we’re a famous writer and we travel to all kinds of different fascinating places with our husband, Michael Vartan (give me a break, I was 11. At least I got the first half of it right. I am a writer of sorts and I do get to travel to all sorts of interesting places for my job. I just don’t happen to be married to the star of Alias).

But I digress. These particular yearbooks held an exceptionally fascinating entry. On first glance, it’s simply a picture of Student Council officers, but if you look at the first name from the right, you can make out the name ‘Davis’. As in Bette Davis, the recipient of 10 Academy Awards for her work in movies such as Jezebel, The Little Foxes, All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But before all that, she was just plain old Ruth Elizabeth Davis from Lowell, Mass.

During her 60 year acting career, Bette Davis knew the kind of fame reserved for the absolute highest of the A-List celebrities and in 1999, the American Film Institute named her as the second greatest female star of all time (the number one slot went to Katherine Hepburn). But the thing about yearbooks is that regardless of how far you go in life or what you do or don’t accomplish, everyone captures fame for at least one moment, and it’s recorded in these pages. Like the song says “everyone dies famous in a small town.” Newton, MA might not be the smallest town in the world, but I think the concept still applies. That desire to feel like you were a part of something great applies not only to famous movie stars, but also to the clerk at your local supermarket.

People have a want and a need to reflect on their achievements, their progress as people, and their own fame. And this desire is what makes the yearbook digitization’s “it girl.”

To read more about our efforts to digitize yearbooks, check out this Boston Globe article.

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