Mass. Memories Road Show travels to Martha’s Vineyard

Ann Hollister, left, describes her photographs to interviewer Liz Letner and Deborah Maher. — Photo by Sam Moore

If you had to pick three photos to preserve for posterity, how would you decide which to choose? The Mass. Memories Road Show had at least 62 Vineyarders thinking about the question of what has been meaningful in their lives as they chose photos to take to the Hebrew Center Sunday, where representatives of the project recorded Island memories.

The Road Show is a program of the UMass Boston Healey Library’s University Archives and Special Collections. One hundred and seventy-five images were scanned, and will be added to the Road Show collection, and will be available online within a couple of months.

Among the items chosen by Carol Fligor, whose family has a long history with Edgartown, was a Life magazine article from 1942. It showed a picture of Somerset Maugham being served breakfast in bed at the Colonial Inn, built by Carol’s grandparents Thomas and Lisa Chirgwin, which was where he wrote his book “The Razor’s Edge.” Carol’s mother was typist for his manuscript.

Amy Ryan, Vineyard Haven library director, who initiated the Road Show’s visit to the Island, chose a photo of the nautical painter Captain John Ivory, whose work hangs in her library. Captain Ivory lived and painted in a boat beached on the Vineyard Haven Harbor front in the 1940s and ’50s.

When Amy originally brought the Road Show idea to the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association, it inspired all the Island libraries to be involved in the planning. Carolyn Goldstein, public history and community archives program manager at the Healey Library, met with the Island planning team over a six-month period.

“This program is the major way we collaborate and partner with communities in Massachusetts to document and support local history initiatives,” she said.

The Road Show builds histories through photos, videos, and stories of various Massachusetts towns or locations, such as Boston’s West End. They also record group experiences in collections like, for example, “Irish Immigrant Experience,” “World War II Stories,” or “Remembering Home: Boston Public Housing.” Martha’s Vineyard is the program’s 66th Road Show. They hope to eventually visit all 351 towns and cities in the state.

The Road Show brings all the necessary equipment and their staff; the community does all the outreach and gathers volunteers. The Road Show’s staff held a training for the 24 local volunteers on the Friday evening before the event. The local group, which included staff from all the Island libraries and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, as well as other volunteers, was augmented at the event by about 27 UMass staff and trained volunteers from off-Island. After being trained, anyone can be a “roadie” at another Mass. Memories Road Show.

Evidently, the experience is so rewarding that it attracts people like Matt Person from Falmouth, who has volunteered at two or three Road Shows a year for the past nine years. Sallyrose Savage, age 13, worked the Vineyard show with her mother after being part of the Hingham Road Show in May. “We loved the program so much we decided to become roadies,” she said. “I personally love history. We recently moved to Massachusetts, so this helps me find out about where I live.”

Because the event was so thoroughly organized, the experience of submitting photos and recording stories was made easy for participants. Welcoming volunteers greeted people as they arrived at the door, and led them to tables inside where other volunteers guided them through the task of filling out a form for each image to be submitted. Participants were then directed to one of five scanning stations.

At another station, a keepsake photo could be taken of participants holding their photos. There was also a video station, where people recorded the story of their photos, a preservation station with information on resources and methods for preserving family photos and documents, and a local history station, run by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Museum chief curator Bonnie Stacey was on hand to answer history-related questions, and explain methods for preserving items. The museum has scanned collections of local photos and albums to add to their digital collection. Museum oral history curator Linsey Lee was on the lookout for future stories to record for their Oral History Center.

As the day went on, photos and stories added up, bit by bit, to become a reflection of what’s important for the Island community. Marie Allen of Oak Bluffs chose photos that celebrate the journey of, as she said, “a poor family from Roxbury who all went on to college. At one point we were all in college at the same time” — she, her son, and her daughter.

As well as helping to create a communal story, the people who brought in images found meaning for themselves through the process. For Lily K. Morris, who grew up on Chappaquiddick, the process took a couple of hours. She explained, “I wanted to take time to reflect on the photos and write something that really shared what they meant to me.”

As she left the Road Show, feeling satisfied, Lily said, “I finally feel like I exist. I’m documented in history. I’m a sailor. I’m from Chappaquiddick, and that’s all you need to know about me.”

There are many possibilities for the future of the Vineyard’s Road Show collection, although nothing is planned as of present. The Island libraries and the Museum will receive copies of all the images, which will be put on the Mass. Memories Road Show website. The Times and other local media expect to share images and videos from the Road Show.

“They have given us the tools to do this kind of project,” Amy Ryan said. “If someone wants to build on this, they could do it easily. Other communities have published books.”

A future project she envisions would involve more recent history, based on what’s meaningful to the people on the Island now. “The people of Martha’s Vineyard are passionate about their history,” she said.

The UMass website is openarchives.umb.edu. Scroll down to Mass. Memories Road Show to find a list of all their collections.