The Autograph Project was introduced in November of 2018 when I enthusiastically donated 30 autograph books to a class of grade four students. I have been welcomed into this classroom several times this school year.
We began the project by researching antique autograph books from my collection. One book belonged to my mother and was given to her in 1934 by her sister. Another book belonged to my husband’s great-grandfather, Mr. John Deacon Merryfield, with entries as early as 1883. We all wonder if he ever imagined a class of grade four students reading his autograph book, 136 years later.
We soon realized which autograph entries were the most helpful in putting together the story of Grandpa Merryfield’s life. He invited friends, relatives, nurses, doctors, and teachers to contribute to his book, and, in most cases, the relationship he had to them is clear. Some entries were made in Palmerston, Ontario during the 1880s and 90s. After a lapse of several years, while he was busy pioneering, there are autographs written in Rosetown, Saskatchewan by doctors and nurses in the 1940s.
The class seemed to enjoy the poems, quotations, greetings, drawings, and jokes included in the entries. These extras are fascinating to read, even a century later. We discovered the best entries, as with most writing, covered the five Ws: Who, what, where, when, and why. Who was writing the entry to whom? When was it being written? Where were they at the time of the entry? What was the relationship between the owner of the book and the writer? Why were they being invited to write in the book?
The children learned that today, people sometimes assume that signing an autograph book means just signing one’s name. It is wise to explain what you are expecting in order to ensure a memorable autograph from your friend, relative, or acquaintance.
We talked about why some people might be reluctant to sign an autograph book. It is an honour to be asked to write in someone’s book, but the idea that it could be read decades later creates a sense of responsibility. Allowing the invitee to keep the album over lunch-hour or even overnight provides them enough time to plan a thoughtful entry.
When the children first received their books, the majority had never encountered the traditional concept of an autograph album. They soon understood the historical information my old autograph books offered to our family. They saw the value in the concept, and I know that some will continue inviting people to write in their books. I think some felt like it might be difficult to remember their album as time passed. The idea that one can put the autograph book away, as Grandpa Merryfield did, and revisit it at a later date, seemed to relieve the pressure.
Throughout this year, I enjoyed many quiet conversations with the children. One boy told me that his family didn't have an old autograph album but they had an old family bible that held historical treasures. Two children found autograph albums belonging to their parents and enjoyed looking at the entries. One child discovered that her grandmother had kept several autograph books, including one from the child’s great grandfather. That will make for good discussions over tea.
Drawings, poems, and jokes seemed as popular with these students as in the 1800s. One student told me that a variety of entry styles made it more fun to look through his book. I was pleased that he spent time with his autograph album. Celebrity autographs are still a favourite. Such entries are worth reading decades from now. Several of the children even have celebrity relatives.
In my previous blog about autograph albums, I asked, “Will autograph albums outlive Facebook?” Well, these grade four children agree that social media has changed our way of remembering people, and probably the use of autograph albums will disappear. We have contact lists in our phones, and we connect more often but differently. We discussed the fact that words on paper, in autograph books, or on social media are real and require careful thought. We talked about the value of our reputations and how words, once out there, can’t be retrieved.
The most precious thing, for me, about the autograph project was reading the kind, sweet entries the children made in each other’s books. Going forward, if their social media posts are as kind as their grade four autographs, their reputations will be golden.
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