They’re less like National Treasure and more like The History Detectives. Their magic is less epic than cerebral, but they are subtly powerful. They are the fail-safe protection on our governments, enabling citizens to petition their officials for the redress of grievances. They are temples of secrets.
I’d venture to guess that the reader has likely passed their local or state archives or even a branch of the National Archives without realizing it. They are frequently crowded into basements, or are sometimes overshadowed by a single exhibit. Most people don’t have a good sense of what they are or what they’re for.
Archives answer questions. For those who work for the community, they are a means to understand complex issues involving our government or other institutions. Archives contain the reasons and the politics behind the establishment of a park or state forest boundary, document legal battles between citizens and government agencies, record what some parcel of land was really intended for, and chronicle how communities have succeeded or failed when faced with all manner of environmental problems. More generally, archives are home to records of the decisions an institution makes and to the evidence of the actions it takes. Sometimes they’re even a place to make a point.
Archives offer something to people who want to understand the past- their own, their family’s, and their community’s. They contain snapshots of the places people connect with the government- the ubiquitous census records, land patents and deeds, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the oft-overlooked prison records. (Everyone wants to discover that they are descended from royalty. It’s more likely that you’re related to horse thieves and other nogoodniks.) Sometimes, you can even find a picture. These records, together with the recollections of other family members, can help you to uncover where your family is really from, where and how they lived, and even paints a picture of what they wanted out of life. Archives build a human story.
In creating and answering questions with these collections, you’re doing the impossible. You’re creating something of expanding value without expending anything. This value has the potential to grow without limit as you learn more, make new connections, and share all of this with others.
Perhaps the best part about an archive is that you get to touch most if not all of their collections. While museum objects are safely sequestered under glass, archival documents are handed-over by the Hollinger box-full. You can hold in your hands Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sermons, a century-old photograph of the wild mountains that would become Shenandoah National Park, or your grandfather’s enlistment records, revealing that he lied about his age in order to join the Marine Corps. Some archives or manuscript collections contain maps of places you know, made before you knew them, or hand written notes about the way a classic book was originally going to end. Some contain sound recordings and moving pictures. They establish a tangible connection to history and make it relevant to the present.
Obviously, this tip is more complicated than carrying a bandana to reduce the number of paper towels you use or buying local beer to save energy. But, whether you need resources to make your community a better place or you want to put stock in something of enduring value, archives offer a way to be the solution.
Author's note: The people pictured above are committing a crime. They are highlighted here not because I agree with their sentiment (I don’t think there is a constitutional basis for their assertion), but because a friend alerted me that this demonstration was unfolding at the National Archives earlier this week. It seemed fitting to include it.
Anonymous photographer, undisclosed stack location, Washington, DC
Veterans for Peace
National Park Service
Friday, September 26, 2008