Commentary
11:02 am
Fri November 1, 2013

Saving Louisville's Records and History

Dr. Samuel W. Thomas researching in 1992 at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives. Dr. Thomas' papers now are all housed at the University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections.
Credit Bill Carner

Four years ago, on a beautiful autumn afternoon, Judy Miller from the Filson Historical Society arrived at my office at The Courier-Journal with a surprise: A copy of Dr. Samuel W. Thomas’ long-awaited Architectural History of Louisville, 1778-1900. The Filson society, then celebrating its 125th anniversary, had selected Thomas’ book as its commemorative publication for the occasion.

This magnificently illustrated book, which is still available through the Filson or at local bookstores such as Carmichael’s, is a meticulously researched record of our city from its origins as a rustic riverbank settlement in the Revolutionary War era to its golden age at the turn of the 20th Century, when Louisville was the 10th largest city in America, boasting some of the finest estates, parks and private residences the nation.

Thomas died a year ago this month, and he left behind a nearly finished manuscript of another valuable book about the development of the Olmsted Parks and the importance of Frederick Law Olmsted in the 20th Century growth of Louisville. This book is now in stores, published by Gill Holland and Augusta Brown. Origins of Louisville’s Olmsted Parks, Holland Brown Books, $50)

Sam Thomas was a friend and longtime colleague. We once had adjacent offices at The Courier-Journal building, when I was a very young feature writer and he was director of the newspaper’s fledgling books division. Of course, the Bingham enterprises were far more expansive in that era than what we know as The Courier-Journal today. There was the morning newspaper, but also the vigorous evening Louisville Times, WHAS-AM and FM, as well as WHAS-TV, which were among the nation’s most respected broadcast operations, the Standard Gravure Printing Co., and other smaller operations.

So it made perfect sense for a young man like Sam, who doubled at the Jefferson County Archivist, to set up shop at Sixth and Broadway. Among the books that were published included the best-selling Courier-Journal cookbook, with recipes by the memorable food editor Cissy Gregg. Billy Davis assembled a collection of his historic aerial photographs (The Courier-Journal was the first newspaper in America to employ a full-time aerial photographer). Two collections of Joe Creason’s homespun columns were published (and edited by Sam). But perhaps the most valued books that were issued in that era were researched and edited by Sam: Views of Louisville: Volumes One and Two.

In his introduction to the first volume, publisher Barry Bingham Sr. wrote in 1971: “Sam Thomas has sought to satisfy our curiosity about our municipal past, as far as the most diligent research into old records and pictorial documents will allow. … Dr. Thomas’ book will, I believe, enrich any reader’s understanding of the Louisville so many of us love, but so imperfectly know.”

Views of Louisville Volume Two is now so rare that a used copy sells on Amazon for a minimum of $99. I believe The Courier-Journal originally charged $15 for it.

Trained as a chemist (his doctorate was in that field, not history), Sam was drawn to Louisville history early on when he and his brother, Jim, moved into the cabin at Locust Grove and together helped with restoration of that 18th century landmark. Later Jim would serve a long tenure as director of Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Ky.

It is more than fitting that the State Historical Records Advisory Board  has chosen to pay honor to Sam with a special certificate. The award was presented to his widow, Debbie, at a ceremony at the University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections on Oct. 30. Debbie Thomas was Sam’s colleague and, after his death, she finished editing the Olmsted book and compiled its meticulous index.

This occasion, and the fact that October has been designated Kentucky Archives Month, reminded me of how important archives are in the life of our nation, and certainly in the civic success of this city. Organizations like the Filson Historical Society and the University of Louisville Archives collect, preserve and make accessible the words and images that comprise our collective histories. Other important archives exist at the Louisville Free Public Library, in city government, and at the Jefferson County Public Schools. I’ve been amazed to discover how fleeting civic memories can be. Again and again I run into people whose memories of vitally important Louisvillians of just five, 10 or 25 years ago are vague if not completely nonexistent. Of course, it is the role of a newspaper to continue to remind readers of our past. I tried to do this throughout my career as did others who worked at the paper over the years including Jean Howerton Coady, Grady Clay, Mr. Bingham Sr., John Ed Pearce, Doris J. Batliner, David Hawpe and others. Just this week, longtime Courier-Journal photographer Bill Luster contributed a loving scrapbook about Highway 31W, which wends its way through West-Central Kentucky. 

All of these things are dependent upon well-organized and protected archives, whether they be located at a university, at a historical society or in a newspaper building. Recent episodes of disregard for such records are enough to cause great worry for those who fear the perils of civic amnesia.

For instance, former owners of WAVE Inc. and The Courier-Journal both lamented the fact that following the sale of each broadcast operation, dumpster-loads of historic videotape and audio recordings were carted away. At the Courier-Journal, more than 75 years of photographs and clippings, many not yet digitalized for quick recovery, languish, mostly unused, in dim parts of the 65-year-old building. Their preservation – and ultimately their full indexing for the benefit of future generations should be a major local priority. My personal hope is that they wind up in an archive that makes them available to all, perhaps for a fee that the newspaper could benefit from financially. The point is, they are the collective community memory and they deserve respectful preservation.

But the dangers aren’t just in mass media offices. I fear there are perils everywhere. The advent of new forms of communication: voicemails, emails, Facebook postings, tweets and the like have taken the place of the files of letters that Louisville’s history is built upon. Digital photography, while miraculous in many ways, is also ephemeral. I am not sure how to address this problem.

My archivist friends are busy developing protocols for saving computer-generated communications. But busy people in government, private industry, the media and in education are trying to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources. There’s no time to keep records, and besides, zealous lawyers frequently discourage it. If Sam were here today, I think he would share my concern, and encourage anyone in a position to save records – or to encourage others to do so – to take every step possible to encourage the maintenance of good records and to see that, in time, they find their way into a repository where the hard work and achievements of the people of our time can be remembered, studied and even honored by generations of historians, journalists and scholars to come.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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