This blog post was written by Processing Archivist Thomas DeShong.
October is American Archives Month, a time set apart each year when we celebrate the roles archives play in the United States. But why does the nation honor such a profession? What makes archives so important? Naturally, as someone who has devoted nearly seven years of his life to the field, I have considered the higher purposes of archives before and attempted to answer the ultimate question one must ask when considering a vocation, “So what?” There are so many reasons why archival work matters, but I will leave you with three particularly meaningful to me.
Archives, first and foremost, maintain the collective memory of the people by preserving documents that chronicle the past. It is no accident that historians often point to the creation of writing in ancient Sumer as the starting point of human civilization. While oral history has been and remains valuable, especially today, human memory is finite and can be distorted. Yet there can be something objective in the written word, for once something is to put to paper, or to email for our modern readers, it exists apart from the creator as something in and of itself. Archivists organize and process records that have often outlived their original purposes but still have something to tell us about the past. Documents can serve as evidence so that our society never forgets its triumphant moments — the establishment of a world-changing democracy and the ongoing efforts to make our nation “a more perfect union” — as well as its darkest hours — slavery and oppression. Archives force us to confront the past by remembering where we as a nation have come from.
In addition to preserving part of the collective memory, archives also challenge us as Americans to be better citizens and to hopefully leave our nation in a better place than it was when we were born. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, three of the most foundational writings of American democracy, protect us as citizens but also challenge us to take part in what remains one of history’s greatest revolutions. Archives not only preserve what some may deem as the most significant historical documents; they also preserve the records of ordinary citizens. Primary sources, in the form of diaries and correspondence, can serve as evidence for researchers to define what it means to be an American, what it means to be un-American, what it means to be the “other,” who is included, and who is excluded at any given point in history. Archives can demonstrate how citizens of the past have interacted with their government, society, and each other.
A final way in which archives play a significant role in our country is through the teaching of historical empathy. This is by far the most difficult and complex of the three reasons I have mentioned. It is tempting, and admittedly too easy, for Americans today to judge people of the past through the lens of the present. It is, after all, our primary way of thinking about the world. It is important, however, to recognize that human beings are a product of their society and environment and can be limited by the strictures of time. It is anachronistic and unfair to judge the past by our collective and personal understanding of morality. This process of historical empathy, trying to understand why historical figures acted and spoke the way they did, is a lesson in humility. Empathy does not excuse the sins of the past, rather, it seeks to understand and learn from them. Archival work and research compel us to place ourselves in another’s shoes; to “empathize” with their unique situation.
For seven years, I have worked at the W. R. Poage Legislative Library and The Texas Collection, two special collections at Baylor University. My experiences have been invaluable. As a student of history, I have been challenged to empathize with characters I do not relate to or agree with, to think of myself as one small but integral character in the tapestry of American civilization, and to remember the past as it was with all its complexities, triumphs, and tragedies. Archival repositories are priceless resources to our country. They will never let us forget where we have come from, will teach us how we got here, and can guide us to where we need to go if we listen.