Growing up, Edward Benoit III knew about his dad’s footlocker in the attic but didn’t dare open it. After his father’s death in 2011, Benoit found it contained letters and photos from his father’s Air Force career.
These were objects he could hold in his hands and read. And it got him thinking about the communications of 21st century soldiers and sailors.
“What’s going to happen to all these digital records because they’re much more ephemeral than a physical photograph or a letter?” Benoit said. “How do you pass down a bunch of emails?”
The assistant professor at LSU’s School of Library and Information Science is hoping to come up with the answer.
Benoit, 39, has started the Virtual Footlocker Project to ensure that current and future military personnel will be able to easily have their own experiences passed down for posterity. He has received a $391,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to help develop an application that can preserve those digital records.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Benoit’s interest in preserving military stories was piqued as an undergraduate when he visited an archive and discovered the work of groundbreaking war photographer Georgette “Dickey” Chapelle, who recorded images in three wars before she was killed in 1965 in Vietnam. Benoit also took a break in his studies and served in the Air Force.
As an archivist, Benoit knows how soldiers’ written records have helped historians and researchers gain better insight into what military personnel experience whether deployed overseas or in their stateside postings, as well as the effects on their families.
“Historians love the personal details that you find in diaries and journals,” he said. “Some of the most historically valuable things of the Civil War are soldiers’ diaries and journals, because there’s only so much you can get from the official record.”
Email, video chats and social media are much better modes of communication than previous generations of warriors enjoyed, but are less likely to be preserved, Benoit said. Creating a way to readily do that is quite involved.
Benoit has begun surveying contemporary veterans and active duty personnel to learn how they are documenting their service, and the IMLS grant allows him to hire assistants for that purpose.
Ideally, he said, a system would capture communication as it takes place. However, veterans have expressed concerns that some of their communications will be too personal to share with others, so a way for them to edit the collection is necessary.
Of course, not all communication is digital, so a “virtual footlocker” needs to have a way to incorporate hard-copy photos and text. All of it, Benoit said, needs to be easy to operate.
Benoit is still in the information-gathering stage. When that is done, addressing the technical issues can take place. If all goes well, Benoit hopes to have a prototype in four or five years.
“Veterans and active duty members have unique stories to tell, but we also have to give them access to the tools for them to do this for themselves,” he said. “It would be great for things to end up in an archive, but, more importantly, so they can pass it along to their children, hopefully their grandchildren.”