While conducting research for my books I come across some really wonderful finds. The best are almost always the actual accounts people have left behind--their journal entries, or snippets from personal correspondence--underscoring the critical nature of keeping paper records, which is fast becoming a lost art in our electronic world.
There is a wonderful site called "Eyewitness to History" that is a priceless collection of true accounts of great historical moments and events. Every adult will enjoy these true-life glimpses and every student will need at least a few of these as they prepare papers on ancient kingdoms or US history.
The site and it's accounts will enlighten us on some topics, showing the incredible elegance and ingenuity of people who managed great feats without all our modern technology. It also blasts holes in romantic myths of courtly behavior during Medieval times, displaying the atrocities that occurred in those stunning castles, illustrating the barbarism nobles inflicted on the peasantry to construct them, and then to support the lifestyle.
I've spoken several times on the need to maintain a personal record. No one's life, no matter how mundane we may think it is, will be without value to someone looking back upon it. One of my very favorite references is a published diary of Martha Ogle Foreman, the young wife of a wealthy plantation owner and military man. Her diary entries are short and concise accounts of her daily work with occasional entries about the weather, the people who visited her, and the trips she took. It is an invaluable look at plantation life in the early nineteenth century, and it debunks the "The Gone With The Wind" idea about lazy lives of pleasure. Everyone worked--hard.
One of my favorite examples of the need to keep records comes from Dolley Madison's letters during the final hours at the President's House before it was burned by the British. These were a great resource to me during the writing of "Dawn's Early Light." A friend of the family who became disaffected from James Madison wrote a scathing report about the president saying he abandoned Dolley in the dangerous hours prior to the British entry into Washington, in a cowardly effort to save his own skin.
Dolley's letters to her sister, and a copy of hurriedly scribbled notes from James to her shows a very different picture. James told her over and over to be prepared to leave the house at any moment, and then he sent wave after wave of men to ferry her away, but he own letters prove that she chose not to leave without him. That she actually had those who had been sent to save her ruffled to the point of near anger with her, but still, she would not budge until she had secured a few of the nation's treasure, including the famed portrait of George Washington, and was assured she was completely out of time. Had it not been for her own record, history would have had only the bitter and untrue account of a disaffected friend which would have forever tarnished James Madison's reputation.
So why should any of this matter to us? Someone will write our record. Will we trust how we are remembered to someone else, or will we set the record straight? It's in our hands.