Ambitious undertaking aims to preserve memories of Chattanooga

Ambitious undertaking aims to preserve memories of Chattanooga

October 20th, 2017 by Elizabeth Fite in Local Regional News

Chris Cummings, left, talks alongside Public Library Director Corinne Hill about The Chattanooga Memory Project they are launching today. The project is a subscription-based story-telling platform.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Chattanooga's history will no longer be tucked away in old archives filled with dusty books or trapped as fleeting memories in people's minds.

Chattanooga will become the first city in the United States to bring its history to life digitally through the new Chattanooga Memory Project, an ambitious and revolutionary undertaking by the Chattanooga Public Library.

"We didn't want to do another history project about Civil War battle sites," said library Director Corinne Hill. "We really wanted to hear from the community about their memories of the city."

The Chattanooga Memory Project will enable anyone who's been touched or affected by Chattanooga to share their experiences through uploaded video, audio, photo or text that can be pinned by place, time and theme.

For example, users will be able to search specific dates to view a chronology of the city or pull up a neighborhood and see every memory associated with that location.

The idea was born as part of the library's strategic plan to capture and preserve Chattanooga's history and inspired by another digital history, the Singapore Memory Project.

Chris Cummings, left, talks alongside Public Library Director Corinne Hill about The Chattanooga Memory Project they are launching today. The project is a subscription-based story-telling platform.

Chris Cummings, left, talks alongside Public Library Director...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

Hill said the library team formed a vision for the Memory Project several years ago, but didn't have the $34 million (in U.S. dollars) that Singapore paid for its project. Then a year ago, she heard about an up-and-coming Chattanooga company called Pass It Down.

"Whenever anyone comes to you and says, 'Hey, I think we can work together. I want to use your technology,' it's generally really scary, because most of the time their ideas don't fit what you do," said Chris Cummings, founder and CEO of Pass It Down, which Cummings started in 2015 after watching his mother's battle with dementia to help families capture and preserve their memories.

But Cummings' and Hill's ideas aligned, and the possibility of a Chattanooga Memory Project became a reality.

"Chris really understands how important storytelling is to capturing history, whether it's your personal history, your family history, and that can translate into a city's history," Hill said.

The goal, according to Hill, is to bring existing history to life, fill in the gaps and give everyone a chance to contribute.

"As a library, we've never been in the business of only telling one side of the story," she said. "We allow that story to be told so that you get to see all these different viewpoints, and then you as a human being can come to the conclusion."

The platform is built using Cummings' software, which is designed to be user friendly and appeal to all ages. Community outreach efforts are in the works to target those without computer access or who are less technologically savvy.

Cummings said that while the project is unique to this city, studying Singapore's work helped him develop a roadmap for Chattanooga.

"Singapore's memory project is, in my opinion, the most successful storytelling project that's ever occurred," he said. "They were able to collect over 1 million memories – real memories of people."

He said that country's recent ascension from poverty to prosperity in some ways mirrors Chattanooga, and documenting that transformation is important, especially for future generations.

"Kids today grow up with technology from an early, early age, but the way that we tell history didn't keep up with the times," he said. "Kids can find history interesting, but it has to be told in the way that they're operating."

The project will go live around Thanksgiving, and there is no cost for individuals to subscribe, view or contribute to it.

To keep the city's costs low, Pass It Down and other organizations, including Google, are supporting the project.

"We are excited to work with the city to create a landmark program that can modernize how history is told," Cummings said. "History is meant for all, and our aim is to provide access to the entire community."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.


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