In the opening of the 1987 cult classic movie “The Princess Bride,” a grandfather brings his sick grandson a book, and the boy isn’t very excited. “A book?” he asks. “Has it got any sports in it?”
“Are you kidding?” says his grandfather. “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. True love. Miracles.”
That is what Corinne Hill is waiting to find in the unofficial histories of Chattanooga captured by the newly launched Memory Project.
“I did not want to revisit the stories that have been told over and over and over again about the same families and the same this and the same that,” said Hill, Director of the Chattanooga Public Library (CPL), which is hosting the project.
Technologically speaking, the Memory Project is an electronic platform that allows people via computer, cell phone and voice recording to share their memories of the city. Mapping technology will let a user pinpoint where a story took place, making it easier to search by neighborhood or even street. Memories can be of a neighborhood, an event, a building or bridge, the Tennessee River, a holiday tradition, or anything related to Chattanooga.
The possibilities are only limited by what a person would like to share, resident or not. For example, at a family get together, children could interview a grandparent about a favorite recipe. Or people could upload old photographs, maps or architectural drawings of the city, or new ones. As Hill said, “this is not just about capturing who we’ve been, but about who we are right now.”
All of it will be easily searchable, and for those uncomfortable with technology, the CPL plans to come to community events to widen the number of people who participate in it to tell the fullest story of the place we each call home.
Each month will be grouped around themes, like holiday traditions, for example, to make it easier for people to participate—and for the CPL to fund the project. Hill estimated it will cost about $250,000 to launch in the first year and will rely on monthly and yearly sponsors who will be able to pick months that most closely align with their business or personal interests. (Most costs associated with it are not funded by CPL’s annual budget.)
What are some of the stories Hill is excited to explore? One of the most intriguing to her is the story of Chattanooga’s renaissance since the 1970s. Residents frequently have cited an alleged 1969 broadcast by CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite where he labeled the city the “Dirtiest in America” as the catalyst to rebuild downtown. But, said Hill, no one can find that footage. “We have a long correspondence with the network. Nothing is in the archives … and there is no evidence that he said anything about Chattanooga in 1969. In 1971 he talked about Chattanooga and pollution, but never in the terms always quoted,” she added.
It’s just one example of how Hill hopes the Memory Project will show how the history we don’t know is a lot more intriguing than what we do know. “It’s not pretty. And it doesn’t have a bow or a regular cast of characters,” she said. “But it’s so much more interesting.”
The idea was inspired by one in Singapore, which has captured over a million memories since in 2011 it started chronicling the lives of those in that country, which was founded in 1965. And it evolved from dream to reality through a partnership with Pass It Down. The business, founded by Chris Cummings, won the 2017 Spirit of Innovation Award from the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and seeks to make it easier for families, organizations and municipalities to capture their shared histories.
Hill said this project is one of the things she loves about being a librarian. “Our mission is the same. How far back do you want to go—3,000 years? We’ve always been about access to information, preservation of information, and delivery of information.”
“But how we deliver that mission changes. And that’s perfectly ok. As a significant part of the community we have a responsibility to evolve like everybody else is.”
To add your story—good, bad, ugly and everything in between—to the Chattanooga Memory Project, go to chattanoogamemory.com.