Friday, September 26, 2008

Hidden in plain sight


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.

Image sources:
Anonymous photographer, undisclosed stack location, Washington, DC
Veterans for Peace
National Park Service

6 comments:

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Not only are public archives important, so are family archives. I also firmly believe that diaries/journals are valuable legacies to leave for future generations. It's interesting to find that great-great-grandma wrote poems by lamplight in a sod house to fill the lonely hours of the empty prairie.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Chris,
Absolutely. Sadly, people just don't write letters anymore, so one of the major streams of personal/family manuscript collections has faded away. Likewise, we take our pictures with digital cameras. Some of these wind-up as hardcopy pictures, but most of the common methods of electronic printing just don't hold up as well as chemical-process prints. What will become of the digital versions is anyone's guess.
I sometimes wonder if future generations will one day plumb the depths of Google, Facebook, and Flickr in search of pieces of their family history. I'd imagine these will also become legitimate sources for social historians. (To anyone reading this after 2075, sorry about the mess we left and good luck with your thesis defense.)

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
Happy New Year

Pat Jenkins said...

they offer a way to understand as well erd. well written!!!... thanks for adding your note at the end, because i hated to see any political innuendo added to this....

Sue said...

Thank you, erd.

Years ago when I taught college in Pennsylvania, I had a "dog and pony show" called "History in Your Attic" in which I talked about all the odds and ends that actually had historical value: children's report cards (showing how curriculum and evaluation change over time), cash register receipts (letting you know how much grocery prices have changed, and people's buying habits), utility bills, etc. as well as the more obvious letters, diaries, photographs, and so forth. I would tell them tales of how I used such odds and ends to help fashion the history of the town I studied for my masters thesis. Today I wonder if people still keep those sorts of things?

E. R. Dunhill said...

Sue,
I'm glad to hear about people building social histories, and helping students to understand that history isn't simply matter of treaties, "great men", and drafty houses with wavy windows and white columns. The historical record tells human stories and it helps us to see many of the filters that cloud our understanding of the modern world.
In our disposible culture, so much of this raw material of history gets lost. This is compounded by the ephemeral nature of all of our electronic transactions and records. I encourage people to write about signficant happenings and general observations in journals and letters. It's also a good idea to label the backs of photographs (in pencil) with the names of the people in the photo and where and when it was taken.