By Amanda Norman
A few years ago at a Christmas party, I was asked, “Why bother to keep historical records? Why not reboot every hundred years or so with a clean slate? We don’t know that much about the 1600s, and that doesn’t really hurt us.”
After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I tried to explain to this new acquaintance about the importance of records in understanding where we’ve been, so we can make better choices moving forward. I told him about how records are invaluable resources for people, businesses, governments, and other organizations. I reminded that we do, in fact, know quite a bit about the events of the 1600s, thanks to records, and without them, we wouldn’t know about major events like civil wars, plagues, religious movements, and more—events that shape our contemporary life, even if in ways that aren’t readily apparent.
But I don’t think I really got through to him, and that left me feeling dissatisfied with my response. When considering archives and historical preservation, perhaps the natural impulse is to think that these efforts are for the past. That old things document past people, past places, past events. And while that view is partially true, the real function of archives is so much more.
We keep archives for the future. Archival records retain their value as they are used, today, tomorrow, and for our descendants. Every time a researcher finds that turning point journal entry, that critical line entry in a ledger book, that changing boundary on a map, that influential piece of correspondence—every time a researcher gains new knowledge, the past comes to life. New knowledge leads
to a better future, whether a record tells us where an old burial ground was so we don’t build on top of it, or if it gives us greater insight into the mind of a former U.S. President and how he formed decisions. No matter if the information gained is of local or international impact, of interest to a nation or to one person, the past becomes present when people use archives.
For these reasons, I appreciate the sentiment behind the naming of Baylor’s vision, Pro Futuris. A play on Baylor’s motto, Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana, the words remind us that all that we do at a university is in the name of a better future. In my role as University Archivist, I can see through the records that Baylor has changed in many ways…and hasn’t changed at all in others. We’re still discussing many of the same issues that were being discussed decades ago, from diversity to gender politics to what kind of institution we mean to be.
If archives sit on the shelves untouched, then yes, they are of the past. That’s why The Texas Collection is perpetually working to make accessible its records so people can interact with the past and bring it to current relevance—and hopefully, future actions for a better future.