A Hard Drive that Brings History to Life

12/18/18 - Meghan Creek

When I was asked to inventory the Hugo Keesing hard drive, I knew it would be a big project and had no idea really what it would entail. Most people assume when they hear that you work in an archive that you only deal with old stuff and that history is somehow more authentic if it is something that you can touch. The more delicate and threatening to self-destruct at any minute due to its decades-worth of wear and tear, the better. While I enjoy the smell of a book older than any living human just as much as the next guy and handling items so ramshackle and rusted that it’s a good thing that my tetanus shot is up to date, my experience with the Keesing hard drive has opened my eyes to the possibilities for discovery of equal importance through the exploration of a digital archive.

At first glance, I knew that this hard drive contained the bulk of Dr. Keesing’s research materials from his various projects since the mid-1990s. In the few short months that I have been working for Special Collections at UMD, I have come to understand that Dr. Keesing is a prolific collector and over the past decades has amassed an extraordinary archive of recordings, sheet music, and other artifacts related to American popular music. Examining this hard drive has provided me with better insight into what Dr. Keesing does with these materials once he has collected them, especially what kinds of stories the music and its related memorabilia can tell us about American history. Because much of Dr. Keesing’s recent research focuses primarily on periods of war and conflict in the United States throughout the 20th century, the materials on his hard drive illustrate pivotal points in the country’s development through images, recordings, and his analysis.

Even though my primary job in going through this hard drive was to merely describe the contents of each folder for inventory purposes—meaning I could only glance briefly at each of the hundreds of thousands of files if I ever hoped to make progress—I have walked away with a greater knowledge, deeper understanding, and appreciation for American history, and for the brave people that fought to protect our rights and safety both at home and abroad. Although I was a firm believer coming into this project about the amount of information one can glean about popular culture from its music, my experience with this collection has been living proof. Of course, I did learn a great deal from photographs that Dr. Keesing collected from each era, as well as his various writings on his research topics. But I may have been able to learn, or at least infer, just as much from simply looking at the hundreds of scans of recordings and sheet music and listening to the recordings from his collection sorted into different themes and time periods.

Through the analysis of Dr. Keesing’s collection of images of the covers of albums and sheet music, song titles, and lyrics, history is illuminated in regards to popular beliefs and values, fears, celebrations, opinions about famous (or infamous) historical figures, and a myriad of other topics. One example that comes to mind is how divided the United States was in their feelings about the Vietnam War. Housed on this hard drive are several song recordings expressing anti-war, pro-military, and anti-protestor sentiments. From what I have learned by going through this hard drive, music played an integral role during the Vietnam War, especially in boosting the morale of the troops. This collection contains recordings that were aired on the radio broadcasts in Vietnam for the troops and includes songs firmly imprinted into their memory of the war. There are several accompanying photographs of soldiers performing music in their downtime. These facts could just as easily be learned by reading a history book, but to me, there is just something so much more meaningful and poignant in learning history through music. Music not only is culture, but it also plays a key role in preserving it and bringing history to life.

One of my discoveries in going through this hard drive that has stuck with me the most would be Dr. Keesing’s extensive research on the Rosies of World War II, the real-life inspirations for the feminist icon Rosie the Riveter. I have known about Rosie the Riveter since I was a young girl when my maternal grandmother introduced me to her. My grandmother is one of the strongest, most extraordinary women that I know and has always taught me to stand up for myself and that I can do anything that I put my mind to. As a woman who raised seven children on her own and put herself through law school, she became one of my most important role models and sources of inspiration once I grew old enough to truly understand her perseverance and accomplishments. When I was going through Dr. Keesing’s files on Rosie the Riveter, clicking through hundreds of images of a determined woman telling me “Yes We Can,” I was immediately reminded of my grandmother. I also learned of the stories and saw photographs of real-life Rosies, women who joined the workforce in service of their country while their husbands were away at war. Although some of the advertisements were blatantly sexist in their portrayal of gender roles, it was still empowering for me as a woman in 2018 to stumble across all of these images of women showing they are just as capable as men in getting the job done as they entered the workforce for the first time.

Often times in the canonized telling of history, the important contributions of women like the Rosies are relegated to short asides at best, or omitted altogether. Just from glancing over Dr. Keesing’s files on the Rosies, I was able to learn so much in a short amount of time about these extraordinary women. One story that especially stuck out to me was how many planes they built throughout World War II, with the B-17 being the most common and the most preferred type of plane by the U.S. Army, so much so that General Douglas MacArthur referred to it as “The Lady’s Airplane.” The 5000th B-17 that the Rosies built, appropriately named the “Five Grand,” was sent on a mission called Operation Manna/Chowhound to drop hundreds of pounds of food over an area of the Netherlands still occupied by the Nazis. The citizens, many of whom were dying of starvation at this point, consider this day to be their true liberation day even though they would not be freed from Nazi control until a few months later. What makes this story even more extraordinary is that Dr. Keesing and his parents were a part of those liberated people. Decades later, with the aim of recognizing the efforts of the Rosies, Dr. Keesing coordinated two ceremonies—one in Washington D.C. and one in the Netherlands—to honor these women and tell their stories.

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