One of the more fascinating projects sponsored by the Nebraska Library Commission, is Nebraska Memories, a cooperative project to digitize Nebraska-related historical and cultural heritage materials and make them available to researchers of all ages via the Internet. The Nebraska Memories database houses digital collections created by Nebraska libraries and cultural heritage institutions such as museums and historical societies. Primary source materials such as manuscripts, diaries, photographs, sheet music, maps and oral histories are being targeted for inclusion.
Periodically, the Commission’s NCompass Blog, will feature a piece about photos or other entries that have been added to the Nebraska Memories database. A recent blog entry commented on the flooding along the Missouri River and featured photos documenting flooding of the Platte and Elkhorn rivers in 1912. A total of 33 photos documenting flooding in Nebraska are in the database. The earliest photos date to 1881.
What do photos about floods have to do with disabilities and disability services you ask? Nothing, except that as I was looking at the pictures, the unbidden question popped in to my mind, “What kind of pictures would I find in the database if I used the search terms disability and/or disabled? Would I find anything?” In due course, I ran a search and found five photos that used the term disabled in the historical notes accompanying the photo, thus providing implied commentary about how individuals who were ill, elderly, infirm, or who had disabilities were perceived at the time the photo was taken. The photos which span the period from 1916 through the 1950’s may be found at this link http://bit.ly/iq2FYd.
In 1916, what Nebraskan’s know today as the Beatrice State Development Center (BSDC), was then called The Nebraska Institute for Feeble-Minded Youth. The photo appeared in a report prepared for the Nebraska legislature by the Nebraska Board of Commissioners of State Institutions. According to the historical note, “[T]he Institute housed tuberculosis patients as well as mentally disabled patients.” A photo taken at BSDC in the 1950’s, notes that “Building C is used today (2009) as housing for individuals with developmental disabilities.”
Two items, a postcard and a photo, are part of the history of Omaha’s Alegent Health Immanuel Medical Center. A postcard labeled Immanuel Hospital and Nazareth Home, Omaha, Nebraska, shows the original hospital built in 1890. Later, the building outgrew its usefulness as a hospital and a second hospital was opened in January of 1910. The 1890 hospital building was then converted into the Nazareth Home to care for invalids and aged. The photo of the Immanuel Invalid Home has this historical note: “This is the third building used as Immanuel’s care facility for the disabled. It supported up to 60 patients.”
The 1918 photo of the Bethpage Mission at Axtell, Nebraska was featured in a 1918 Nebraska State Board of Charities and Correction report. The Mission was owned and operated by the Swedish Lutheran Church. It was designed to care for epileptics, insane, aged and incurables. Today it is run by the Desert Ministries and focuses on helping the developmentally disabled.
Today, we take offense at terminology once used to describe individuals with disabilities or the elderly: feeble-minded, mentally deficient, infirm, crippled, etc. We are offended and appalled (and rightly so) about the history of mistreatment of individuals with disabilities, the elderly, and other marginalized groups of people. Today, the medical model of disability is discredited; in its place, the social model is emerging. For each of society’s wrongs throughout history, social justice movements have fought back, painstakingly working for change. Success has often come at a high price.
I don’t know the source of this observation, but it goes like this: “Hindsight is always 20-20.” The point being made of course is that when we look backwards at history, we often judge it very harshly because know things people then did not know thus we have a much different perspective. We also have more advanced technology and other resources that weren’t available then. In my lifetime alone, we have so much more technology, so many advances in medicine that individuals who would not have lived or who once would have been excluded from society or institutionalized, or not been afforded an education, are active participants in society.
The Nebraska Memories Project captures and preserves bits of our visual and oral history. The descriptive content accompanying it gives us a window into our mindset, and values of the time. We can learn a great deal about ourselves, our communities and our history from the resources being digitized and preserved for the future. In one sense, each generation is critical of the last. It would be interesting and perhaps surprising, to know what future generations come to think of our own times.