An Instagram find

Mim (at right) and friends in Congress Park, 1922. Courtesy of Skidmore College Special Collections

One night several years ago, I recalled that it had been a while since I last Googled some of my favorite ancestors. Slouched in my chair, I scrolled idly through the Google hits for “Miriam Shakshober,” my grandfather’s aunt whom I never met but regarded with interest. Towards the end of her life she was supposed to have been a recluse, dying quietly in her house in December 1980 as Christmas cards piled up in her mailbox. The house she died in—her childhood home, possessing the uncanny power of always drawing her back—is now rented out to multiple tenants. I had once called the landlord inquiring about the property and he informed me that my surname is written on the wall in the basement. My imagination teemed with gothic imagery. I was able to visit this home when the first floor was unoccupied and found that one of the Shakshober siblings had indeed painted their family name on the inside storm door as a warning to potential intruders.

Several pages into my Google search, I found an Instagram post from Skidmore College’s Special Collections dated 23 April 2018 and captioned: “This photograph from Miriam Shakshober’s photobook is captioned ‘Down in the Park, 1922.’” In that moment I felt a rush of gratitude for social media that I hadn’t quite felt before. It goes without saying that users all over the world have capitalized on Instagram’s content scope and geographical reach, but with this post I was beginning to grasp its significance for genealogy.

I arrived in Saratoga Springs and was first shown a letter from the donor—none other than my grandfather’s cousin.

From previous research, I knew Miriam had been an undergraduate at Skidmore. I emailed the college archives describing this Instagram post and the kind staff wrote back inviting me to view Miriam’s scrapbook, which did not yet appear in the public catalog. I arrived in Saratoga Springs and was first shown a letter from the donor—none other than my grandfather’s cousin. Miriam did not have children of her own, but had been especially close to her niece, a former oral historian at UC Berkeley. After Miriam died in 1980, her niece Gaby had been one of the relatives sorting through her personal effects and saved numerous family photographs and papers from the trash. The scrapbook remained in Gaby’s home until 2002, when she ensured its safekeeping at Skidmore College.

The scrapbook contained what one would expect of a college girl’s scrapbook: ticket stubs, dance invitations, photos depicting gaggles of girls. Miriam is rarely smiling, except when photographed sitting on the roof of her dorm in the early morning hours. There were notes hinting at disagreements between Miriam and her friends—“Mim, let’s snap out of this—I’m sorry if I have offended you”—and others written from a place of concern—“Mim dearest, you seem awful blue to-day.” Unexpected finds included Miriam’s “freshman bib,” representing a Skidmore ritual by which upperclassmen required members of the incoming class to wear oversized white paper around their necks inscribed with their names. There were out-of-town permission slips, evidence the college acted in loco parentis for the girls in its care.

Miriam’s scrapbook is now cataloged in the Scribner Library Archives’ Scrapbook and Memorabilia Collection. The finding aid for this collection is discoverable to the public and includes several other twentieth-century college scrapbooks created by Skidmore girls during their college years.

Needless to say, I am now a member of Instagram.

Jennifer Shakshober

About Jennifer Shakshober

Jen Shakshober earned a dual BA in English and Economics from Westfield State University, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bennington College, and a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University. She is currently pursuing an MLIS in Archives Management from Simmons University. Her past research has involved nineteenth and twentieth-century Vermont records from local and state-level repositories. Most recently she wrote two articles about the murder of labor organizer Joseph Shoemaker for The Walloomsack Review, a biannual publication of the Bennington (Vt.) Museum, and she is always interested in crafting narrative genealogical reports.View all posts by Jennifer Shakshober